Saturday, December 29, 2007

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Topics Covered:
thoughts on Sweeney Todd, the prophetic visions of William Blake,
the artistic legacy of Prince v Sinéad O'Connor

"When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you."

NOTE: I've made an effort to be vague on specific plot points in order to avoid spoilers so this entry should be safe to read even if you haven't seen the film yet.

I went into Sweeney Todd with very few expectations: I knew from the press it was a musical and I inferred from its general aesthetic and the Tim Burton directing credit that it would be bleak. Ultimately, I was not disappointed in either respect (clever songs propelled rather than adorned the plot which was anything but uplifting), but particularly the latter. The narrative presents a LOT of problems, almost exclusively focusing on social injustices and all the various forms of physical and emotional violence humans enact on other humans, and very little in the way of reliable solutions or methods of coping. The message you walk away with is that people, voluntarily (as in the case of a consensual, romantic relationship) or involuntarily (as in the inherent power disparity in a hierarchical social structure), will always be vulnerable to the capricious or well-intentioned motives of other people. That is that and there's really nothing to be done.

Of course in a modern philosophical/artistic context that sort of fatalistic conclusion is kind of unoriginal and, at least in a realistic sense, pretty much inevitable. The real drama of the film and the essence of what makes it truly compelling and worthwhile lies in how it demonstrates the ways in which opposing viewpoints form entirely different perceptions of the world in relationship to the exact same conclusion (i.e. that the world is full of people who can and will try to victimize you.) The main ideological rift occurs between the titular "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and a young sailor, Anthony Hope, whom, we are told, was instrumental in the rescue and return of Mr. Todd to what will be the staging ground of his plot for revenge. You can probably tell from their names that apathy v. optimism will be a prominent aspect of their dichotomy, but of course the dilemmas they face are much more complicated than your standard glass-half-empty-or-half-full fare. On a more basic level their contrasting views of life are a matter of scale.

Todd tends to see things in a more generalized manner. London to him is basically a scaled down model of the seething "pit" of iniquity that constitutes human relationships on a universal level, thus everyone's character can be reduced to fit into one of two categories: there are the oppressors and the oppressed (who, if they gained any power, would implicitly become the former rather than transcending this binary) and both are equally worthy of death. So his response to a self-acknowledged vulnerability to humanity is to elevate his own highly dubious sense of morality to the position of raison d'etre (which, come to think of it, is pretty much an essential step in any quest for revenge) and consequently to dehumanize everyone else by abstracting their unique characters into those aforementioned categories and using them as tools for his own ends. The fatal flaw here is that his rationale which serves the purpose of shielding himself from the specific is actually rooted in the individual: his wife and daughter (motivation) who were "taken from him" by the evil judge (goal). What makes his philosophy untenable is its simultaneous negation of and dependence on (surprise, surprise) other people.

Conversely, Hope's mindset, in spite of his propensity for snap judgments, is almost entirely decided in a case-by-case basis. His greatest good is embodied entirely by the woman he loves, Johanna (coincidentally also Todd's daughter). Consequently, Judge Turpin is vilified in equal measure since he is the primary obstacle to wedded bliss. As such, it seems to young Anthony that if he can successfully elope with his beloved then, by corollary, he has escaped the world's ills and found lasting happiness. Of course Johanna herself, having endured semi-pedophilic/incestuous advances throughout her childhood and a recent internment in the local asylum is understandably less confident. She indicates that an escape from London won't mean an escape from suffering and everything in the film's Gothic tone would seem to affirm her assertion, but Hope proceeds as planned and the couple's ultimate fate remains ambiguous. Equally unclear in the end is whether or not this perspective is supposed to be viewed as a sort of "flawed, but the best anyone can do" kind of thing or if we are to infer his innocence too will eventually be crushed and the cycle of revenge will spin out into eternity... I told you it was bleak.

The dynamic between these two opposing philosophies united by a common conclusion was evocative of a similar tension that runs throughout the work of William Blake. Like Anthony Hope, Blake was an optimist in that he was staunchly Christian and thus believed that a correct formula of actions exists which will result in freedom from suffering, but like Sweeney Todd he was also kind of, um, CRAZY in that he believed in a metaphysical world unbound by a distinguishable formalized dogma and regularly had divine visions (supposedly when he looked at the sun he saw "A hundred angels singing ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’”)

On the Morning of Christ's Nativity by William Blake
Tripped-out stuff like this was like an everyday occurrence for him.

In 1789 Blake published Songs of Innocence as a standalone and it wasn't until 5 years later that it appeared in conjunction with its companion volume, the appropriately titled Songs of Experience. Together they create what is probably one of the most famous and intriguing internal dialectics in the history of British poetry (although, in my opinion, on their own most of the poems in Innocence wouldn't warrant much extra thought.) I could go into depth with a lot of specific citations to illustrate how these two concepts are defined within the work itself, but really you should just read the whole thing and make up your own mind. It's short, fairly entertaining, and available for free perusal here and probably a million other places on the internet or your nearest library. However, for the sake of furthering the heretofore established argument here is a quick breakdown of my understanding of them:

INNOCENCE - an essentially integrative perspective which seeks to empathize with everything in its surroundings, good or bad. This results in a lot of anthropmorphization and endowing things with supernatural/divine qualities in order to create a plausible explanation for why said things which apparently contradict the speaker's view on an empirical level actually affirm it on a metaphysical level.

EXPERIENCE - a perspective which sees subjectivity and difference as the constitutive element of existence. This results in a lot of confusion as to what the hell things are "supposed to mean" both in and outside the poems since they aren't being reduced to the speaker/reader's level of comprehensibility. Read "The Sick Rose" and you'll know what I mean. It's stuff that's authentically affecting, but you'd be hard-pressed to explain just why.

OK, I lied. I am going to provide one textual example, but it's actually from the Pickering Manuscript. The final four lines of "Auguries of Innocence" (the poem Gary Farmer's character was so fond of quoting in the excellent Jim Jarmusch movie Dead Man [which, incidentally, stars Johnny Depp playing a character named William Blake]) do a wonderful job of illustrating the Innocence/Experience dichotomy:

"God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day."

The poem assumes that existence will end with God's return, the conflict lies in how this will be perceived. To the Experienced mind the deity appears as a symbol, an abstraction whereas to the Innocent it will present itself in a form they can understand, the human. Either way it sounds pretty sweet if you buy into that kind of thing.

Despite the fact that I am completely obsessed with early to late '80s Prince, I had never heard his original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" until just recently. The
Sinéad O'Connor is, of course, an institution of Western society (and rightfully so in my opinion since unrequited love is one of the most artistically fecund themes in all of history [HINT: see future entry]) and in its own right probably much more famous than its predecessor. I was surprised then, though perhaps I shouldn't have been, that Prince's version was so different from what I had grown accustomed to:

It features the estranged lovers in dialog with each other, their reconciliation practically a foregone conclusion whereas with O' Connor's:

there is a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty. The speaker wants to get back together with her lover but there is no guarantee that they will feel the same way or even that this would be a good decision. These qualities are why I prefer the cover despite the fact that both versions of the song operate in relation to the same assumed endpoint (i.e. the restoration of a relationship.)

Given their particular artistic leanings it seems fitting that one of them will be remembered for controversial moments like this:

View the entirety of the infamous Pope-rip performance here IF YOU CAN HANDLE THE INTENSE/RELEVANT POLITICAL STATEMENT.

and the other for unifying, spiritual jams like this:

regardless of their specific intent.