The Single Returns! From Paglia to iPod, New Unit Aesthetic

The signs are there. Maybe it’s too early, but I’d suggest we’re on the verge of a new aesthetic dispensation, a tendency I’d call “The Return of the Singular.” That’s what I’m calling it, anyway. And, no, not just the “single” as in popular songs, but in literature, in film, in criticism, in thinking about art.

That we are at the dawn of a new mode of thinking-or the return of an older one-came to me, as these things sometimes do, from contemplation of a single surprisingly revelatory mistake. Actually, to quote the Elvis Costello title, it was a “Brilliant Mistake.” A mistake chronicled in a single paragraph in the Post’s Page Six on April 3, about a seemingly ridiculous error made by the BBC.

It seems the BBC is making a documentary about a single song, Bob Marley’s beautiful “No Woman, No Cry.” And one that deserves it. I’ll have more to say about “No Woman, No Cry” and its singular, initially mistaken meaning in my life.

But what made it unusual, what made it an item for Page Six, was that the BBC apparently called the Bob Marley Foundation and asked for an interview-with Bob Marley (d. 1981).

It was a mistake, yes-but you could say that it was a beautiful mistake, a mistake that could be interpreted to say, by those of us who love Bob Marley, that Bob Marley lives. In the music, dude. In a thrillingly intimate, lovingly generous, hypnotic and compelling song like “No Woman, No Cry.” So alive from the first, with a unique spiritual tenderness; even more alive now, with the emotional capital it has accumulated over the years of casting its spell on millions and millions of troubled souls, offering them consolation.

According to the Post, the BBC sent an apology to the Marley Foundation regretting that their request for an interview “did not acknowledge that Mr. Marley is no longer with us.” But hey, Beeb dudes, Bob Marley is with us: Why else would you be devoting an entire documentary to a single song of his?

As I said, I’ll get back to “No Woman, No Cry”-I have a lot more to say about it. But first consider it in the context of The Return of the Single, and the rebirth of close reading that it entails.

I’ve spoken in the past of my affection for Godard’s One Plus One, a brilliant film devoted entirely to the making of a single song-the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” An absolutely enthralling examination of the evolution of a pop masterpiece. I’ve spoken of my antipathy to the album-centric culture of most rock criticism, long too content to comply with the commercial conveniences of the record companies and treat the often overblown, filler-stuffed, bogus-concept-addled album as the “work” to be reviewed as a collective whole, rather than dealing primarily with the one or two songs that deserve far closer attention. The obeisance that rock critics paid to the “concept album” almost led to the death or final Spinal Tap–ifcation of rock.

I’ve always thought there should be more books and movies devoted to single works of art of all kinds, and now perhaps the zeitgeist is saying yes.

Consider Greil Marcus’ book-length study of a single song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that, among other things, deals with the perils and perverse exhilaration of solitude and singularity.

And, of course, iPods have at last broken down the walls of enclosure that make “albums” the unit of musical discourse. But this is about more than just music.

Consider as well the argument that Camille Paglia makes about Shakespeare’s Sonnets in her provocative new book of explications, Break, Blow, Burn. She asserts that, “[by] treating the sonnet as a freestanding poem, rather than a unit in a sonnet sequence, Shakespeare revolutionized poetry in the same way that Donatello, liberating the statue from its medieval architectural niche, revolutionized sculpture.”

I don’t know enough about sculpture to know if she’s right about that, but I do think the sonnets can stand alone. I think her contention that there are passages in Shakespeare’s plays (like the Ghost’s speech in Hamlet) that “can stand alone as poems” is more dicey in the way it tends to dispense with the context of the surrounding play, making invisible a framework of irony, for instance. Can one isolate two lines from a sonnet and treat them as stand-alones? Singularity can be taken too far.

Nonetheless, I admire my former seminar-sharer (Ms. Paglia and I were in Richard Ellmann’s seminar on Yeats at Yale Graduate School) for standing up for stand-alones. I think her own willingness to stand virtually alone for years in her indictment of lit-crit-theory sophistry was quite brave. And now that the bubble has burst and even some hard-core theory partisans have begun laughing at their own folly, making it look like the dot-com bubble of literary discourse, she deserves the status of truth teller about the Emperors’ New Jargon. I was particularly struck by the way she stands up for the New Criticism in the explications that accompany her selection of single poems.

While not uncritical of the decontextualizing aspect of the New Criticism (as “close reading” was called when the New Criticism was still relatively new, say 1930 to 1960), Ms. Paglia declares: ” … the New Criticism, attuned to paradox and ambiguity, was a sophisticated system of interpretation that has never been surpassed as a pedagogical tool for helping novice as well as veteran readers to understand poetry. Its destruction by the influx of European post-structuralism into American universities in the 1970s was a cultural disaster from which higher education has yet to recover.”

Tell it, sister. But she’s on to something: Her decision to publish a book of single poems accompanied by explications-a kind of “compilation album”-proves to be astute, her exegetical style both complex and lucid. And, by the way, aren’t “compilation albums” and “playlists”-even the kind you find at Starbucks-an interesting further facet of The Return of the Singular? In Elvis Costello’s notes for the excellent collection of songs (by other artists) he chose for his Starbucks Artist’s Choice CD (never thought I’d write that), he singles out some amazing lesser-known songs by artists that deserve the attention his compilation gives them. I mean, Freda Payne “Bring the Boys Home”? Who knew there was more than “Band of Gold”?

When you think about it, the remarkable rise in the quality of another kind of compilation disc, the once-despised movie soundtrack, as well as the new buzz over TV-show soundtracks (The O.C.’s sneaker-gazing, lovelorn oeuvre) has helped dissolve the tyranny of the one-band album.

Okay, here’s another piece of evidence: an entire movie devoted to a single joke. You know, the forthcoming one in which a number of comedians tell and retell the same obscene joke, the one known as “The Aristocrats.” (I was privileged to first hear “The Aristocrats” delivered by a member of the Yale “Pundits” Society, a kind of Skull and Bones of dirty-joke tellers who-in the spirit of Rabelais, I guess-gathered each spring to picnic on the Cross-Campus and, after downing prodigious quantities of lobster and champagne, would, one after another, stand up and tell epically long, insanely filthy, classic dirty jokes for the rest of the afternoon. As I recall, “The Aristocrats” was delivered by David Milch, who went on to become the fecund TV auteur.)

From the (conventionally) ridiculous to the (unconventionally) sublime: look at the trend in publishing I noticed when I visited one of my favorite independent bookstores, Crawford Doyle on Madison between 81st and 82nd. There, along the length of an entire wall, were prominently displayed copies of beautifully made editions by two publishing houses, one American, one British, and both doing something quite interesting.

Both Melville House here, and Hesperus in the U.K, were publishing small stand-alone editions of single novellas. Now, the novella is a form that I have to confess I like better than the short story-when done well, obviously. It’s a tricky form, but the uncommercial prospects of the novella over the years suggest that authors who attempt it do so out of the right combination of desire and judgment: desire to do more than the short-story form allows, judgment to realize that inflating it to a full-length novel would dilute its power and intensity.

“Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story,” the inside jacket of the Melville editions tells us, “the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers.” Some of their titles are, they say, “presented in [stand-alone] book form for the first time.”

I wanted them all, even those I’d already read, because the editions were so well-made, but I limited myself to an Edith Wharton I hadn’t known about, The Touchstone, and a Chekhov I hadn’t read, My Life. They also offer works from Turgenev, Melville, Flaubert, Joyce and James. Check it out.

The Hesperus collection goes beyond the novella (although it includes such novellas as Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Fitzgerald’s The Rich Boy) to offer such novella-length poems as Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Chaucer’s The Parliament of Birds, “histories” like Sir Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III (the pathography that was Shakespeare’s source) and stand-alone excerpts from Rabelais.

I like the idea of including what you might call novella-length poems. How about adding Spenser’s “An Hymne in Honour of Beautie” and “An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie” paired between the covers? How about Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Keats’ “Endymion” or Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” to name a few?

The Return of the Singular can mean that works that deserve loving, singular attention will get the kind of attentive focus denied them when they’re buried in Collected Works editions.

Of course, more commercial publishing has already anticipated the single with the trend to books on single small subjects that supposedly “changed the world”: salt, the color mauve, smoked herring-sorry, cod.

Even in the realm of literary magazines, there has been a new step toward singularity: Final Edition, a literary magazine started and finished by Wallace Shawn, that announced in its first issue that it’s going out of business. Issue No. 1-and-only. (The provocative and mystifying futurist short story by Deborah Eisenberg is the high point.) And I just heard about a relatively new short-story periodical called One Story that publishes-well, you figure it out.

What is it about oneness? One must distinguish, mustn’t one, between “We’re No. 1!” oneness and the oneness of the old joke, “What does the Buddha say to the hot-dog man?” (“Make me One with everything.”)

One is not always a signal of great beauty. It features in what may be the single worst song by a “rock” group: “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” by Three Dog Night. (Which also contains maybe the single worst line in the entire history of the English language: “No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know.” No, the saddest experience you’ll ever know is to be forced to listen to “No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know.” Closest rival for bad-lyric eminence: “Sometimes when we touch / The honesty’s too much.”)

If we were seriously seeking the appeal of oneness as a theme of art, we could do worse than to start with Shakespeare’s strange lyric poem, The Phoenix and Turtle, his most mystical meditation upon Love (or most loving meditation on Mysticism), in which he constructs a poetic physics of twoness and oneness:

Property was thus appalled

That the self was not the same:

Single nature’s double name

Neither two nor one was called.

“Single nature’s double name”! (Bob Marley’s “I-and-I”?) Thinking about that too long is hazardous to your mental health.

We could ask Bono, he of the one name whose best song is “One.” (You could make the argument that U2 never surpassed “One.”) But maybe we should return to Bob Marley and “No Woman, No Cry.”

Bob Marley, who also gave us “One Love.” A song whose beauty has still not quite been diminished with overuse by the Jamaican Tourist Board.

But “No Woman, No Cry” is the song that deserves a movie of its own. I hope the movie the BBC is making won’t be focused on the epic lawsuit over the songwriting credit for “No Woman, No Cry,” which a court finally ruled was written by Bob Marley under a pseudonym.

I hope it will be a movie about the mystery of the song: what is it about it that has drawn so many people to it, that has made it mean so much to so many lives.

My history with “No Woman, No Cry” goes back to the summer of 1977, the night of the New York City blackout, when I was wandering around in the dark and ran into my friend, the poet Terese Coe, and she introduced me to “No Woman, No Cry.” (I should mention that Terese’s own considerable lyric gifts are on display in her just-published book of poems, The Everyday Uncommon.)

There was something that connected the night of blackout with the lyrics of the song. Not just the burnin’ and lootin’, but maybe it was the firelight.

I remember that night of the blackout, when I wandered out of the place my girlfriend and I shared in Little Italy, next to a funeral home. I remember the guys sitting on the sidewalk outside the funeral home in the stifling heat (I’ve told this story before, but it just occurred to me that when the air-conditioning and refrigeration fails in a funeral home, you want to be sitting outside).

Anyway, one of them asked me where I was going-hadn’t I heard about the riots, the burnin’ and lootin’? I said I had, but I’d promised to meet a friend at Washington Square Park. In response, the guy offered me a gun. Just one of those little New York kindnesses that you only discover in extraordinary circumstances from your neighbors.

I declined the gun but wandered into the night, and there it was, just like in “No Woman, No Cry”: fires burning in the blackout night. Not destructive fires, but warm, communal trash-can fires that people gathered about. Terese had a Marley tape-and that was the first time I heard “No Woman, No Cry.”

Although I wouldn’t compare the Village that night to the “government yard in Trenchtown” in the song, the firelight was there (and, in places, the smoke must have smelled the same).

I’ve been under the spell of that song ever since. I’m not the only one. Some people, men and women, melt when they hear mention of it. It’s a hymn; you hear that from the first chords of the church organ. It’s a spiritual incantation. I loved it in spirit, but I got it completely wrong. Comically wrong. At least at first.

I mean that, at first, it connected with me in a visceral way-the music, the melody, the rhythm, the spirituality it was imbued with.

But the words? Perhaps because of the conventionally tormented nature of my emotional life at the time, I interpreted “No Woman, No Cry” to mean, roughly, “If you avoid getting into tormenting involvements with women, you spare yourself (and others) tears: No woman, no cry.”

That’s wrong, of course (at least about the song), as I realized in a moment of blazing clarity way too much later. (I’m not the only one who made that mistake, I’ve learned.) It’s a song of consolation: “No, woman, [please] don’t cry.” And as much as I’m taken by the New Critical affinity for irony and paradox, for Empsonian ambiguity, I don’t believe that it really can mean both.

I don’t know how many years I was under the song’s spell, despite this misprision-its tenderness and generosity, its summons to oneness, without knowing it was the wrong kind of oneness. It’s not oneness as solitary lonesomeness, it’s communal oneness. It’s a beautiful hymn to hopefulness in the aftermath of a world of hurt.

And what is the source, the method of consolation: memory, sweet bad-time nostalgia. Most of the lyrics are about Bob Marley remembering the way that when they were all poor and desperate, they (the band, the community, the nation) kept each other’s spirits up with a gentle hopefulness.

And then he delivers the beautiful line: “In this bright future you can’t forget your past.”

But to me, it’s the humble “cornmeal porridge” line in “No Woman, No Cry” that makes its so transcendent.

Marley sings about the way

… Georgie would make the

firelight, and it was

Log wood burning through the

night.

Then we would cook cornmeal

porridge

Of which I’ll share with you …

Gets me every time. A cornmeal communion. Not just “I shared with them,” but “I’ll share with you”-share with all the listeners in the distant future who will hear it and feel, at least for a moment, that “Everything’s gonna be alright.”

So if the BBC somehow does get that interview with Bob Marley in whatever heavenly Ethiopia he shares with Haile Selassie, I hope they ask him for that cornmeal porridge recipe.