Ragged Beauty: An Alternative to the Operations of Power

Here's a fragment of ragged beauty -- stripped to the bone, tarnished and stolen -- etched on the Roman night almost 21 years ago to this day. A rendition of a song written nearly half a century ago now, and built in part upon one of the earliest surviving lyrics in English, "Westron Wind":

"Cryst, if my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde again."




A few years ago, I wrote this about the singer:


You can follow Dylan through many doors, into many realms: the disordered sensuality of Symbolist poetry, the high bohemia and low comedy of the Beats and Brecht, the guilt-ridden, God-yearning psalms of King David, the Gospel road of Jesus Christ, the shiv-sharp romance of Bogart and Bacall. There's Emerson in there, too, Keats, Whitman, even Rilke if you look hard enough: fodder for a thousand footnotes, signposts to a hundred sources of further enlightenment.

But if you go far enough with Dylan, he'll always lead you back to the old music. This is the foundation, the deepest roots of his art, of his power. For me, as for so many people, he was the spirit guide to this other world, this vanished heritage. He has somehow – well, not just "somehow," but through hard work and endless absorption – managed to keep the tradition alive. Not as a museum piece, not like a zoo animal, but as a free, thriving, unpredictable beast, still on the prowl, still extending its range.

Early on, Dylan realized that the essence of the old music was not to be found in the particular styles of picking and singing rigorously classified by the ethnographers and carefully preserved by purists. Traditional music was idiosyncratic, created by thousands of unique individuals working their personal artistry on whatever musical materials came to hand... No, what the old music held in common, what made it penetrating and great, was not some mythological collective origin or expression of sociocultural mores; it was a shared DNA of fundamental themes, fundamental truths – the double helix of joy and mortality, threaded like twine, tangled like snakes, inextricable, irresolvable. It was this genetic code that Dylan used to grow his own art, in its own unique forms.

Joy and mortality: the psychic pain of being alive, your mind and senses flooded with exquisite wonders, miraculous comprehensions – and the simultaneous knowledge of death, the relentless push of time, the fleeting nature of every single experience, every situation, every moment, dying even as it rises. There's pain waiting somewhere – from within or without – in every joy, a canker in every rose we pluck from the ground of being.

This awareness shadows the old music – deepens it, gives it the bite of eternal truth. It's there even in the joyful noise of Uncle Dave Macon, so happy that he whoops out "Kill yourself!" in manic glee as he gallops down the old plank road. Yet in the songs that deal directly with this shadow, such as the blues, full of hard knowledge, hard pain, the very act of singing that pain gives rise to a subtle joy, and a kind of solace. The old songs, and the ones Dylan has built upon them, create another reality, an impossible reconciliation, where time stands still, life and death embrace, decay is banished, and all our pettiness, our evil urges, our confusions are arrested and transcended. Until, of course, the song itself, being mortal, fades away as the music ends.

The other day, I ran across an article that seemed to play into all this somehow. It was "Everything is Connected," written for The Guardian by Tim Parks.

(Continued after the jump)


From the Guardian:
Global warming, global terrorism, food crises, water crises, oil conflicts, culture wars - "civilisation" seems to be accelerating towards self-destruction. These are circumstances in which art and artists tend to get political or, alternatively, resign themselves to insignificance. In literature, the phenomenon is exacerbated by the difficulty many people have reading for anything beyond content and immediately communicated emotion. As Borges once remarked, since most critics have little sense of the aesthetic, they have to find other criteria for judging a book - political persuasion being the most obvious.

At such a moment, it may be worth looking at the work of a man who had a rather unusual take on the relationship between art and politics, who saw the two as intimately related and mutually conditioning, art being allowed a certain, perhaps even pervasive, influence, but not in the crass sense of grinding an axe, or even exploring controversial situations; on the contrary, art might be most "useful" when, to all intents and purposes, most "irrelevant".

That man is Gregory Bateson, the remarkable anthropologist -- if he can be described in such conventional terms -- who is, obliquely, the main character in Parks' latest novel, Dreams of Rivers and Seas. After some detail on Bateson's rather traumatic background, Parks writes:

Bateson's choice of anthropology can be seen as a way of combining the scientific and artistic. In the opening page of his first book, Naven, a study of the Iatmul people of New Guinea, he reflected on the advantages of a novelist's eye when it came to describing a foreign culture: "The artist . . . can leave a great many of the most fundamental aspects of culture to be picked up not from his actual words, but from his emphasis." He can "group and stress" words "so that the reader almost unconsciously receives information which is not explicit in the sentences and which the artist would find it hard - almost impossible - to express in analytic terms. This impressionistic technique is utterly foreign to the methods of science."

...What seems to have fascinated Bateson was the question: how does a complex culture maintain a relatively steady state, adapting to outside change and correcting internal imbalances? Perhaps, having been brought up in a family always engaged in public polemics and torn apart by the conflict that led to his brother's suicide (another older brother was killed in the first world war), Bateson was looking for the sort of mechanisms that can prevent tension from blowing up into tragedy... it was his eye for the way negative situations are, or are not, defused before the worst can happen that led to his formulating some interesting reflections on art.

In New Guinea, Bateson had been observing the different behaviour patterns of men and women among the local people. The more the men were exhibitionist and boastful, the more the women became quiet and contemplative. It was clear that this reciprocal process was potentially dangerous: competing with each other to show off, the men became extremely aggressive, while it sometimes seemed that the women risked sinking into catatonia.

Bateson called his book Naven after the series of bizarre rituals that he came to see as "correcting" this behavioural process and guaranteeing stability. In these complex ceremonies men dressed up as women and vice versa. The women assumed the traditional behaviour of the men while the men were abject and passive, even submitting to simulated rape. Crucially, Bateson observed, no one was conscious of what the social function of the ceremonies might be. For the participants, the rituals had religious significance and that was that. Where competing behaviour patterns could push people to extremes, Bateson concluded - and he mentioned such things as the arms race and sadomasochism - corrective influences would very probably be doing their work unacknowledged. It might in fact be important that people remained unaware of what was happening....

Turning to modern western societies, the key difference Bateson noted was the prodigious empowerment of the conscious, purposeful mind at the expense of less conscious practices and traditions. Much of his work (excellently anthologised in Steps to an Ecology of Mind) now focused on problems of epistemology: what knowledge we have, how we get it and how it is organised. While man was a complex mesh of mind and matter, and human society a dense labyrinth of interlocking systems, human consciousness, Bateson speculated, contained only very limited information about the whole. Since technology had hugely increased the power of conscious purpose to intervene in the world and alter the environment, the danger was that each "improvement" of our situation - a vaccine, an insecticide, a dam - would in fact upset a delicate balance. Back in the 60s, Bateson was among the first to appreciate the dangers of man-made climate change.

Where does art come into this? The curious nature of Bateson's "epistemological" approach was that it prevented him from proposing remedies to the problems he identified. His thinking contained a kind of catch-22: the conscious mind, his own included, was of its nature incapable of grasping the vast system of which it was only a very small and far from representative part; hence any major intervention to "solve" a given problem would always be ill-informed and inadvisable. The only possible solution would be a radical change in our way of thinking, or even our way of knowing, a new (or ancient) mindset in which conscious purpose would be viewed as only a minor and rather suspect part of mental life.

Dreams, religious experience, art, love - these were the phenomena that still had power, Bateson thought, to undermine the rash/rational purposeful mind. Of these four, art enjoyed the special role of fusing different "levels of mind" together: there was necessarily consciousness and purpose in the decision to create, but creativity itself involved openness to material from the unconscious, otherwise the work would be merely schematic and transparent....

Did Bateson really imagine that humanity might be enchanted into a less destructive, more meditative mode by reading stories and looking at pictures, or better still listening to music, which was pure complex interrelation without any suspicious content?

Probably not. Perhaps, true to his own reasoning, he wasn't trying to "be practical", but to offer an attractive idea we might enjoy reflecting on. One of the characteristic aspects of his work is his attempt to draw science into the realm of aesthetics. Having likened the prospect of benign government intervention in social behaviour to the task of reversing an articulated lorry through a labyrinth, he concludes: "We social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honoured, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty."

Rebelling to the end against his father's tendency to place artistic genius on a pedestal and beyond the reach of ordinary minds, Bateson invites us all, whatever we may be up to, to put beauty before "practicality". His achievement was to offer convincing scientific arguments for our doing so.