Sweet Jane, Emerson, and the Art of Recomposition

If you’re a child of the ’60s or early ’70s, or at the very least an acolyte of the music of the time, you pay homage now and then to “Sweet Jane,” Lou Reed’s song about a raunched-out girl living a raunched-out life in a raunched-out world. Recorded originally by Reed’s band The Velvet Underground in 1970, the story is delivered in Reed’s sordid, snarling voice backed by driving, relentless guitar. There’s anger here, rough sex, too many drugs and too much loud rock ‘n’ roll, and a kind of exhaustion that bespoke the end of the ’60s, a wondering of how much longer they could all hang on to this wild ride. It’s totally compelling, like a car wreck. Eighteen years later, in a very different time—Ronnie Ray-gun was president, Greed Was Good, and the idealism and passion that drove people like Reed seemed a long time gone—a band called Cowboy Junkies recorded “Sweet Jane” in the basement of a church. The song became the standout on the young band’s album “The Trinity Session.” Backed by only a low guitar and quiet drums, lead singer Margot Timmins infused the song with a kind of melancholy and dark beauty that created something wholly new. Even Reed said it was “the best and most authentic version” of the much-covered song he had ever heard. It stands completely alone, a tribute to the original, yet something that could only be created by its own cynical time, through the experiences of the woman singing it, and in the place where it was recorded. In that sense, it’s a perfect example of what Emerson was getting at when he said, “Genius borrows nobly.”

“We are as much informers of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates,” he says in “Quotation and Originality.” “A passage from one of the poets, well recited, borrows new interest from the rendering.” Emerson is extremely approachable in this essay, his tone more conversational than in earlier essays. He makes it quite clear at the outset that “there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands.” He goes on to describe how this is true on all levels of life, in religion, society, literature, and even myth. Undoubtedly this concept formed a good chunk of the foundation for David Shields’ Reality Hunger—why pretend not to borrow when borrowing is an inherent part of who we are on every level? And why not, as writers, celebrate and even expand upon the act? (It is interesting that in music, borrowing is a perfectly acceptable form of the art. Hip hop artists routinely take previous melodies and use them as a basis for their own new creations; artists like Margot Timmins can take Lou Reed’s song and make it entirely her own, bringing to it all of her experience and individuality, and be lauded for this, while in literature, to borrow so blatantly will land you on the public confessional of Oprah. In this light, Shields makes so much sense you wonder why he has to subtitle his book “A Manifesto.”)

But Emerson makes the point, just as clearly, that “quotation” for the sake of it is a slippery slope, at the bottom of which one lands in a pile of pomposity at best, and at worst, an abdication of the self and individual Genius, with his capital “G.” Only when one brings one’s own true self to the task does one quote “nobly.” Each individual must interpret his own truth while weaving the threads of the past we all share. Only then does he reveal original thought. “The vast memory is only raw material… the divine gift is ever the instant life, which receives and uses and creates.” (I love the idea of this, as a writer. It makes me feel much less lonely.)

Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” joyfully pillories those organizations and people who slide all the way down Emerson’s slippery slope of quotation without original thought. Their wastefulness of thought and language leads to ridiculousness (see the estimable Prof. Lancelot Hogben) but more dangerously to dishonesty and lies that form the basis for political propaganda, a situation sadly alive and well in today’s second-by-second spin cycle of news. It’s pretty scary how timely and accurate Orwell’s essay remains, how regularly these mechanisms are still used by governments and individuals bent on distance and obfuscation—and bought wholesale by the news media and the people. What comes to mind immediately is Bill Clinton’s memorable, “Define ‘is,’ ’’ and George W. Bush’s, “Mistakes were made,” the most memorable usage of the passive voice in our time. (I would argue that Bush’s mal-speak is worse than Clinton’s because even though they were both lying, Bush was defending an illegal war, while Clinton was just defending his sorry self.) As a sharp counterpoint to the fuzziness of language and truth, Orwell throughout his essay uses metaphors like lasers to burn away the veil: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

There’s also, I think, a clear link between Emerson’s essay and Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” Instead of using great authors and thinkers and stories as the basis of her “original thought,” though, she is using her own experience, her own notes and details that open up her own memories. It’s a profoundly intimate take on Emerson’s argument, one could even say a completely self-absorbed interpretation (Didion herself does, when she says, “the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I. ’’) But it’s also a strong defense of memoir being an act of accepting and embracing the notion that we are, of course, writing about “how it felt to me.” In this I think Didion is extending Emerson’s and even Shields’ argument, that the quotations, thoughts, and—in Didion’s case—events which create “the warp and woof of every moment” are simultaneously everyone’s and our own, to be interpreted through our lense, our perspective, our original thought, to “recompose,” and to create something wholly new.

One thought on “Sweet Jane, Emerson, and the Art of Recomposition

  1. Very nicely woven together. Not everyday we see VU and Emerson in the same post. I share your sense of Emerson’s reception, how this makes writing less lonely, but (as we see in Experience) no less difficult.

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