Joni Mitchell

Okay, so here’s the deal. I don’t really have a soft spot in my heart for Joan Baez. Last week I was making an intellectual point about my respect for her anti-war stance in the face of evidence that she has stopped correctly assessing her place in the universe. Her anti-war stance is not only respectable, but, I think, in many ways an appealing position. But appeal alone is not enough to justify stopping looking towards the future just because people who grew up in the 60s had found something new in the universe of thought. And this, sadly, is what Joan Baez has done. The point that I was trying to make was that it is equally irresponsible to dismiss her as nothing more than a wacky nutcase, which is what Limbaugh does with her and her ilk. There is more in the universe than an appeal to ‘the truth.’

This brings me to one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the 1970s, Joni Mitchell, who wrote one of my favorite songs of all time, Raised on Robbery. The song is a time capsule of the times (1972 or 3). Here it is:

I like this one because it features Pat Metheny on guitar and the greatest bass player ever on the bass, Jaco Pastorius. I think you should listen to it once for Joni’s song, once for the bass line alone, and a third time to notice the dancer who appears on the screen for about ten seconds at 2:20 (you’ll know him when you see him; he’s right next to the guy smoking marijuana at 2:25).

There is another version of this song that is equally great and which features Joni in full 70s Maxi skirt.

I love this song, and it’s one of the reasons that I don’t begrudge Joni Mitchell her place in the universe as “one of the greatest songwriters ever” (Wikipedia). But when it comes to being right about the universe, she’s too much of an idealist to be defensible.

‘Big Yellow Taxi’

My objections to her ‘truth’ can be summed up by looking at her song ‘Big Yellow Taxi‘:

Joni said this about writing the song to journalist Alan McDougall in the early 1970s:

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

Here I have problems with her public utterances. They’re just wrong as fact. She sings:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

There is some truth to this utterance. In some places they have paved jungles to put up parking lots, but we live in America, a country in which the federal government owns 30% of all land. It is therefore, not wholly true. And being partially false cannot hold in anyone’s imagination without losing sight of some of the attendant facts.

This became a problem when the song became a liberal weapon in the culture war that erupted when Ronald Reagan became President and appointed James Watt to the post of Secretary of Interior. This introduced an area of disagreement between conservatives and liberals. In that environment, all that any liberal had to do to put a conservative in their place was to accuse the Secretary of the Interior of wanting to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. This move erected a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ‘Us’ were all good, wanting to save our environment, while ‘them’ were entirely bad, wanting to pave everything.

This comes across as arrogant to the ‘thems’ in this argument. ‘Us’ hold their positions, not on the basis of reason or of the truth, but on the basis of their metaphysically secure position in the universe. As a result, “us’ don’t need to defend their position in the universe. It is wholly and completely obvious. The only reason that anyone could hold such a position in the world is not that they have a different opinion on the matter—there are no other positions available—but on account of the ignorance of ‘them.’ This introduces a kink in ‘us’s feeling that they have grasped a truth which has escaped ‘them.’ There is no actual ‘truth’ in the universe, as ‘them’ hold. Instead, ‘us’ hold their positions, not on the basis of ‘the truth,’ but on the basis of ‘us’ not being one of ‘them.’

This reduction in the power of the subtleties of reason in favor of more metaphysically stable construction of the individual mind has given us a sense that ‘us’ can say anything and the ‘them’ will just have to accept whatever ‘us’ say on the basis that there is no saying no to a person’s opinion. In the world in which Thomas Jefferson has given ‘us’ the founding document of our culture, which says that each of have the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ the rational domain of argument in which there are right and wrong opinions about things, means erecting boundaries between our minds and the infinite boundaries of our minds. This means declaring hegemony over someone else’s mind. This is one of the primary points of debate in our culture.

American Culture

Such questions are perpetuated in all cultures, because culture provides answers to metaphysical questions. Of course liberals have learned to question metaphysical answers, because history has shown that cultures fail, because their answers to such metaphysical questions are usually the product of cultural overconfidence. Conservatives, who believe in American execptionalism and who read the Constitution at the opening of Congress fight ‘them’ on their cultural relativism in which all cultures are equal. Liberals know that as soon as a new culture comes along with a better answer to the problem, the previous culture will fail and rapidly, as resources are transferred from a less efficient culture to a more efficient culture.

In the modern world, such answers hold because no one has yet come up with an answer to how we can integrate our individual selves into a rational world of discourse. We are secure in our metaphysical cocoons, but when we are forced into the world outside our small cocoons, where discourse is less secure, we have not been prepared to fight our battles. We flee in the face of the wolves who want to eat us back our houses. But the fairy tale tells us that we must take care to build our house out of brick, because the big bad wolf will blow our house down if we build it out of straw or sticks.

My problem with Joni’s song is not with her take on environmental issues. It is that the environmentalists were so sure that they had reached the foundation of thought in ‘nature’ that they no longer had to defend themselves or their positions. All they had to do invoke Joni’s song and they were done arguing. If there were any naysayers, they were ‘cretins’ whose opinions don’t make any sense but an opinion that ‘appeals only to other cretins.’ Denying the premise of global warming was a sure sign that you were on of ‘them.’

This political posture put liberals on the side of ‘defenders of nature’ as opposed to the building of ‘artifices’ (like parking lots and DDT) that Rush Limbaugh holds up against his environmentalist opponents. And this still holds in the political environment (see the Counting Crowes version here).

There’s something to this natural posture. To forgo this posture of environmental protection would be to undo the works of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt in protecting the American environment.

And if we look through the microscope through a broad enough lens, we can see that Limbaugh uses natural law as the basis for his belief in his worldview, and he does the same thing. This is why I insist that I am not a conservative or a liberal. Both sides have their feet planted in the ground of nature. I believe that such positions are fundamentally at odds with the universe we live in. This does not stop Limbaugh or Al Franken (who is likely to cite Joni Mitchell as a source of proof for his ideas about the environment) from planting their respective flags in ‘nature’ and announcing that the other side is lying or is just a big fat idiot.

The Romantic Roots of Modern Day Problems

The great discovery of the 20th century was that it was much nicer to live in the city than it was in the country. This was not the way it always was, as we can see if we look to one of the prototypes of Romantic poetry, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770).

Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss and all my woe,
That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excel,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
Farewell! and oh! where’er thy voice be tried,
On Torno’s cliffs, or Pambamarca’s side,
Whether where equinoctial fervours glow,
Or winter wraps the polar world in snow,
Still let thy voice, prevailing over time,
Redress the rigours of th’ inclement clime;
Aid slighted Truth with thy persuasive strain;
Teach erring man to spurn the rage of gain;
Teach him that states of native strength possest,
Though very poor, may still be very blest;
That Trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay,
As ocean sweeps the labour’d mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy
As rocks resist the billows and the sky. (411-430)

The ‘guide by which the nobler arts excel’ is disappearing on account of the (then new) ‘range of gain,’ which no one then could have mistaken for the accelerating pace of capitalist progress. Adam Smith wouldn’t explain this development until seven years later in his Wealth of Nations (1776).

Goldsmith laments the passing of ‘the deserted village,’ because she is the ‘nurse of every virtue.’ That’s too bad (thinks Goldsmith), because he is one of the few who remembers what things used to be like. ‘Trade’s proud empire,’ which is hastening ‘to swift decay’ can be resisted by a flight out of time to memory of times past.

This spurns Goldsmith to call all men (except the rich) to ‘the truth’:

Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay,
Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards, even beyond the miser’s wish, abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains. This wealth is but a name
That leaves our useful products still the same.
Not so the loss. The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied; (265-276)

Goldsmith’s argument is built on a divide between ‘natural’ use–for instance, all men need food, shelter, and healthcare–and things built on top of natural use–things like diamonds, which are status symbols but which have no usefulness beyond their ability to serve as baubles to rich wives (it’s always the women, isn’t it?).

Smith himself illustrates this point himself when he discourses on two kinds of value–value in use and value in exchange–in his Wealth of Nations:

The word value, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called “value in use”; the other, “value in exchange.” The things which have the greatest value in use frequently have little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.

Nature’s equal bounty has been disturbed by mankind’s artifice. ‘Wealth is but a name’ (a construction of human language); not so the loss, which Goldsmith believes are real consequences being visited on the poor. Goldsmith is all for the alignment of the poor, value in use, and humanity, all of which line up against the useless rich, extravagant wealth based in exchange economies, and extra-human activities which prey on the weak poor. This give Goldsmith his ‘us’ v ‘them’ policy of hating the rich while being of the side of the poor. All we have to do is get back to a state of nature and forgo the miserable existence in unconscionable wealth. This returen to self-dependence will in turn launch us out of time into an ideal world.

self-dependent power can time defy
As rocks resist the billows and the sky. (429-430)

This configuration of the universe is one which Wordsworth uses in his Immortality Ode, one of my favorite poems of all time.

In that poem, Wordsworth asks the questions:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream? (57-8)

He finds it, not in time, but in memory of a distinctly Platonic kind. We are born ‘forgetting’ our true home, and that ‘our birth is but a sleep’ (59). We spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to our true home out of time, and the best of us make it. The rest of you live your lives in the ‘prison-house’ of time (Poor you).

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. (59-77)

City Lights

This dream of life out of time in deserted villages of the mind remains characteristic of the turn away from country life to the city life of the 20th century. See the chapter on ‘The Cities of Modernism’ in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 (96-104) for an explanation of the causes of this turn. Stella Gibbons in her novel Cold Comfort Farm dealt a death blow to any vestigial notion that there was anything but pig ignorance to be had from traveling outside of the city confines to take up residence in the country.

Nevertheless, late in the 20th century, a few people like J. L. Carr have had some notion that the turning away from the country has been somewhat of a disaster. In his A Month in the Country, the hero of the novel goes back, not to live there permanently (God forfend!), but only for a month. While there, he realizes things about the past and about himself he could never have learned if he stayed in the city. But after his month, he returns to his ordinary life, enriched.

By the same token, Modernism went too far—as I think Wordsworth went too far into the country—into the city. I have spoken of my reading of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, where there is a tendency to overvalue ‘nature’ and to undervalue humankind in humankind’s desire to see the world from the perspective of God. Hermione seeks out another Birkin because when she talks to him she feels ‘sufficient, whole.’ ‘For the rest of time she was established on the sand, built over a chasm….’ Someone in the world must have ‘the whole’ in their minds, Lawrence feels.

So what is really happening here is that Hermione is not self-sufficient at all. She seeks comfort in the other Birkin, but his God-like self-sufficiency comes at the cost of his attachments to Hermione’s horizontal processes (in which she sees many apples) for vertical processes (in which he sees ‘the one apple). He has been able to escape this life to a ‘higher’ life in which he is able to see the world of nature much more clearly than those ‘Imprisoned within a limited, false set of concepts.’ However, the ‘fulfilment’ of his knowledge is ‘great’ and ‘dark.’ What is more, it’s ‘knowledge you can’t have in your head.’ Instead, ‘the dark involuntary being’ escapes even the other Birkin. It seems to me that in order for him to close ‘the gap’ between his knowledge and hers he must abolish all that mankind holds dear: the satisfaction of hunger, sex, children, even human ‘being’ itself in favor of his ‘perfect’ nature.

It seems clear to me that in her ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ Joni Mitchell is working out the late Romantic threads that the careful reader can find much more deeply expressed in great works of art going back two centuries and even (if we want to go back to Plato) two millennia. It is this sense of ‘the truth’ being only available to those who give up ‘really’ looking for ‘the truth’ and resigning themselves to viewing ‘the truth’ at a distance that is available only to the wise.

This is the configuration of Joni Mitchell’s universe, which she sings about in ‘Big Yellow Taxi’:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

But I always wanted a more immediate experience than Joni Mitchell or Joseph Campbell, with his ‘word behind words,’ could provide me. Both thinkers, it seemed to me, put a metaphor in place of ‘the truth.’ And when I asked for ‘the truth’ behind the metaphor, I was being directed back to the metaphor. This, it seemed to me, indicated that there was no direct access to ‘the truth’ at all. Joni Mitchell, Joseph Campbell, and even Lenny Bruce were wrong!

Getting Back to the Garden: Woodstock

As I said before, this doesn’t cause me to dismiss Joni because she has not gotten back to the truth. My taste in music is based in other things. But her philosophy is based in a virulent (and in my opinion errant) form of idealism. For instance, in her Woodstock, Joni wants to walk with the people who are traveling to Woodstock:

I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going

She decides to follow these ‘children of god,’ because they are getting back to nature and there is freedom:

And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free

Now there is nothing wrong with that, per se. When I was young, this is what I wanted, as well. All I had to do, it seemed to me then, was to displace my mind from my selfish and individualistic impulses—those which had driven the Industrial Revolution and which had been cataloged by the notorious Smith—to the Romantic impulse which Joseph Campbell foretells us may be our destiny when he says:

“When you see the Earth from space, you don’t see any divisions of nation-states there. This may be the symbol of the new mythology to come; this is the country we will celebrate, and these are the people we are one with.”

Joni seems to agree:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

That is the world before mankind had eaten ‘the one fruit,’ the apple that caused us mankind to fall. In my experience with medieval literature, I have learned to distrust people who tell us that it is easy (or even possible) to ‘get back to the garden.’ But this doesn’t seem to have occurred to Joni, who feels that she is ‘caught in the Devil’s bargain,’ not because of a permanent dictate of God to redress ‘original sin,’ but on the part of a vague ‘tradition’ (read ‘habit,’ you philosophers). All we have to do is to roll back our time-bound existences for a more permanent existence on a planet somewhere out there is ‘space’ (see ‘My Body is Floating in Space‘ and my discussion of My Dinner with André for the continuity of the space metaphor in the 60s and its legacy).

By the time we got to woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devils bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

All that is required to turn ‘bombers’ into ‘butterflies’ (or swords into plowshares for the followers of the UN mission) is to do away with our parents’ traditions that have built up over time and to face ‘the truth.’

In this, the generation of the 1960s were following the path laid out by Moderns like Joseph Campbell, who thought that ‘The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature’ and this was to be accomplished by turning our hearts inward: ‘It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.’

What To Do?

What was I to do? When I was in college (the first time), I was being told that I should just accept that people smarter than me had found answers, and I was to accept them on their face. In other words, I was being told that my individual beliefs were too narrow and only by exchanging them for a comprehensive set of beliefs could I have it all.

But I had stumbled there, where it was not ‘really’ possible to view the ‘word behind the words.’ It was just a metaphor. I would just have to take it on ‘faith’ that what Joseph Campbell was telling me was ‘the truth’ was in fact ‘the truth,’ and not just another ‘lie.’ This is the problem I find, not just in Joni Mitchell’s work, but in philosophical thought going back to Plato. I was being told that I had to take it, not because somebody had an answer as to why I should believe that it was anything but a fiction, but because nobody could answer my questions about the truth of their assertions.

I couldn’t agree with that, since it meant foregoing my actual individual life for the possibly fictional ‘word behind the words.’

‘Both Sides’

Joni Mitchell is living in a fairy tale world is she stops building her house because she thinks that she has found a permanent answer to the questions she raises. And at times it appears she does. In her song ‘Both Sides,’ she affects the posture of Ovid’s Tiresius, who had seen the world from the perspective of both man and woman.

Joni, too, has seen the world from both sides: ‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now / From up and down.’ Her goal, just like the goal of Anne Bradstreet, had originally been to see the sun.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

But what I respect about her vision is her lack of certainty about her vision. The presence of clouds had blocked the sun, and this has left her with only an imaginative vision of the universe:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere

This has destabilized her experience of clouds from ‘real’ factual clouds to ‘cloud illusions.’ This causes her to reflect on the whole experience of looking at clouds. ‘I really don’t know clouds at all.’ It’s ‘just another show’:

You leave ’em laughing when you go.’
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

From there it’s just a matter of transferring, not her actual vision of the ‘truth’ of clouds, but her metaphor of ‘clouds’ to life itself.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’

The saving grace of Joni Mitchell, for me, is not that she is one of ‘us’ who know ‘the truth’ as opposed to one of the ‘thems’ who have not grasped ‘the truth.’ It is her skepticism about her ability to completely know herself. She is like Hermione in Lawrence’s Women in Love who relies on someone else to make up for her own lack of confidence in her own abilities. This lack of confidence in herself changes her from someone who occupies the forbidden garden to a person who is a restless searcher after truth.

She explores her restless nature, which I admit I share, in her ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.’

This is one of my favorite all time songs for lyrics. The whole world’s a mystery, but out of the mystery she has managed to tease out some meaning:

Out on the vast and subtle plains of mystery
A split tongue spirit talks
Noble as a nickel chief
Striking up an old juke box
And he says:
“Snakes along the railroad tracks.”
He says, “Eagles in jet trails …”
He says, “Coils around feathers and talons on scales …
Gravel under the belly plates …”
He says, “Wind in the Wings …”
He says, “Big bird dragging its tail in the dust …
Snake kite flying on a string.”

She positions herself, according to her Enlightenment roots, in the world between two dualities in a world of endless multiplicities. And I don’t agree with her here. But that’s not the point. Or rather that’s not the whole point. She may believe what she is saying, but I love her ability to turn a phrase such as ‘noble as a nickel chief,’ ‘coils around feathers,’ ‘talons on scales,’ and ‘eagles in jet trails.’ Her ability to think of thoughts like these is where her art lies, and not in the content of what she is saying. After all, she is placing an impossible image in front of her viewer, and no amount of ‘reason,’ no amoung of ‘looking for the truth’ beneath her words will ever get me (or you) to the truth of what she is saying. To close her metaphor around a truth would be to falsify what she is telling you. THAT is her point.

She returns to the roots she had made in her previous art of ‘Raised on Robbery’—‘Our serpents love the whiskey bars’—which in turn comes from her own experience:

I come from open prairie
Given some wisdom and a lot of jive!
Last night the ghosts of my old ideas
Reran on channel five

The fact that she puts this into an Enlightenment-trained model bespeaks the limits of reason. The truth lies beyond reason in the human mind’s capacity to create metaphor. Only in metaphor can we experience what poets have been telling us is ‘the deeper truth’ behind our experience. This is what my teachers were trying to tell me they told me to sit quietly in my seat and listen to them. It was what Joseph Campbell was telling me when he was telling me to abandon my individual experience for a more complete experience.

Of course I found that experience to be a complete bunch of nonsense, but that didn’t stop my teacher insisting that there was something wrong with me (believe me, I know there’s something wrong with me; but that doesn’t make the position of my opponents, who are arguing or something they cannot prove, any more right). That is why, as I got older, I graduated from feeling about myself and those ‘us’s who had figured that the way out of the dilemma of the individual was to grasp a-hold of a surer metaphor by which we are made secure in our metaphysical selves (which no one could prove to me wasn’t just another fiction) to a less sure reason which had limits that I could measure.

I left school to pursue my own education, rather than merely submitting myself as a seed of grain in the educational mill. And yes, I tend to agree with Ms. Mitchell in her assertion that ‘there is danger and education / In living out such a reckless life style,’ but I have never regretted my decision to forgo my formal education for one which left me less sure of my ultimate role in the universe than my academic colleagues had. I watched ‘Bergman’s Nordic blues’ and My Dinner with André with a skepticism born of having been lied to more than once before.

I went back to school, of course. My academic colleagues could never understand where I was coming from. From the right, they thought I was too far left; from the left they saw me as all right (not in a good way). But I have always thought of myself as siphoning off the colored language from the farms and the streets, while hopelessly oppressed cowards center themselves solidly behind eight balls. Oh say can you see what I’m saying?

Probably not. Does it matter?

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.