Friday, July 02, 2004

To resonate. . .

Lately, I’ve been hearing Johnny Cash songs everywhere; on the car radio, or over the speakers in the local watering hole where I sometimes eat lunch. Then the twenty-something who works upstairs burned me a copy of his last album before he died. She and her boyfriend, just out of school and struggling, actually plunked down money for the cd.

On the first track, he reads from the book of Revelation, and the recording is scratchy, tinny, distant, like it’s been remastered from an old record. Then I’m instantly 7 or 8 years old, listening to my mom’s old Johnny Cash LPs. And something, I can’t define it, something in that grave, deep, southern-inflected voice–and I’m suddenly feeling waves of homesickness, for a warmer, kinder, sepia-tinted past: where a river flows slow and warm and muddy, and kids barefoot in the yard on summer evenings chase lightning bugs. A world where men wear western-cut suits and women wear print shirtwaist dresses to church, every Sunday, and everyone has faith, and hope. Everyone loves their neighbor. The kind of world where children are all safe, and loved, and fed.

Then I came to my senses.

I remembered, just in time, that I am in fact northern born-and-bred, and a lesbian, to boot. That sepia-tinted world--had it ever existed--would prove particularly inhospitable to me.

But I thought all afternoon about how a few words, spoken just so, invoke such a strong response–that’s resonance. For just a moment or two, I was utterly transported. And I felt sorry to leave. Powerful fiction.

The best writing does the same thing. It takes you to another time and place, and creates a longing, a nostalgia for something that never was. Then leaves you grieving when you reach the end.

It seems like there are some factors built into evocative writing. The images trade on the reader’s prior experiences and previous knowledge. Moby Dick might not ring nearly so deeply without the story of Odysseus, for example–a story almost everyone has been exposed to, whether or not they’ve read it. And the story of Ishmael, the outcast son of Abraham in the Bible underpins the whole thing, as well. And now, every story of a lonely man on a long journey has the added weight of Moby Dick driving it, as well.

I worry that it’s going to get harder to achieve that clean, resonant quality as fewer readers seem to be exposed to a canon of accepted-by-the-powers-that-be texts. I was talking to an English major, a college senior, the other day. She’d never read either Milton or Dickens. For what have we traded-out the texts written by those once-cherished dead-white-guys? I don’t know that we got the better end of the bargain.

If I hadn’t grown up reading the Bible (long story, I’ll save it for a different post) that Johnny Cash cd couldn’t have touched me quite the same way. Words from the book of Revelation might have seemed like lovely apocalyptic poetry–but they wouldn’t have rung with the promise of unleashed thunder soon to follow.

And without that thunder, I would still like the album--but it wouldn't really mean very much.

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