Culture and Personal Experience
by Mark English
A busker. A real musician, this one, with an acoustic guitar and a small amplifier, operating on a (by then) relatively quiet city street corner late the other night.
You know how it is. You hear a song that is vaguely familiar, and you want to identify it. You Google a couple of keywords or phrases from the lyrics. Dice, loaded from the start, exploded in my heart. Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Everyone I subsequently asked about it knew it better than I did.
The busker’s version sounded more like the cover by The Killers than most of Knopfler’s versions. The lyrics were driving it. (1) What you don’t get from my busker or The Killers, however, is Knopfler’s accent, and the glottal stop replacing the ‘t’ of ‘heart’ in ‘heart attack’ for instance. (Juliet says: “Hey, it’s Romeo! You nearly gave me a heart attack.”) (2)
The classicist and poet A.E. Housman said that good poetry makes the hairs on your chin bristle if you recite it while shaving. He had developed reliable mechanisms of aesthetic judgment based on bodily responses, apparently. My hairs – and tear ducts – are hopeless judges of quality. I can react emotionally to the most embarrassingly simple musical triggers: just about anything emotive which is not sickly sweet. Even national anthems. Any good anthem will bring tears to my eyes. With films I am a little more discriminating, but still very vulnerable to emotional manipulation.
Full disclosure. There is for me a complicating factor pertaining to the song – an old friendship with an actual Juliet. No doubt this fact influences my responses but not, I think, in a decisive way. I have talked to others with similar romantic instincts to mine and no links to real Romeos or real Juliets and they respond to the song very much as I do.
The Juliet I speak of claimed that she didn’t have a name at all before she was five – she was just “Baby” (or the equivalent in Serbo-Croatian, her parents’ language). Apparently, when she had to go to kindergarten, her older sister chose her name. Yes, from the Shakespeare play, which she was studying at school.
Of course, the downside of actual romantic attachments is the emotional wear-and-tear, especially relating to jealousy and the fear of betrayal (or bitterness about past betrayals). I am aware that it’s all too easy to sentimentalize reality, and songs and movies can encourage the process of emotional wallowing. But films and songs which deal with themes of love and betrayal can also have positive effects, sometimes providing a broader perspective – reassuring us that others have experienced the same thing, or worse – and so a measure of comfort.
I know that certain Eastern religions warn people off emotions like jealousy. One old friend of mine – a Western devotee of an Indian guru – was forever blaming herself for feeling jealous about her absent boyfriend (who belonged to the same sect). I used to try to convince her that it was fine and natural to be jealous. And I think it is. It’s part of the deal.
Jealousy is not wrong in a moral sense (as she thought it was). But it’s certainly tough to deal with. The way I see it, it’s just part of the price you pay for an intense emotional life.
Knopfler’s song is light and funny, but also serious in its colloquial way: “You promised me everything… Now you just say: Oh, Romeo, yeah, I used to have a scene with him.”
The song is particularly interesting for its cultural references, which include Shakespeare’s play, of course, and also Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story (which was itself a reworking of Shakespeare’s narrative). The phrase “a place for us” fits a famous song from that musical, the melody of which incorporates phrases from works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. But the film Romeo and Juliet, which Franco Zeffirelli directed, and music from that film (composed by Nino Rota) are also being alluded to, I think. Such historical and cultural allusions are rare in popular works today. The song “Zombie” (by The Cranberries) was considered unusual twenty years ago for making a reference to 1916 (the year of the ill-fated Easter Rising). We are increasingly cut off from communal memories.
You can deal with love and loss and nostalgia on a number of levels. There is nostalgia as a theme in songs or movies. Then there is the level of personal experience. And personal memories, of course, are often intertwined with particular songs or films, whether or not they deal with nostalgia as a theme.
This last point touches on an important issue: our radical dependence on culture. All our complex experiences, including romantic attachments and even our very sense of self are, in a real sense, not only socially- but culturally-based. And the nature and quality of these experiences is partly determined by the nature of the culture which has created and which sustains us as human beings.
A culture – like a language, which is arguably the central component of a culture – is a pattern of influences and interactions which may be analyzed synchronically (i.e. as it exists at any given time) or diachronically (historically).
So I end with two claims. The first (pretty uncontroversial, I think) is that contemporary Western culture has become progressively disconnected from its history. Our cultural memories are failing.
One sign of this I have alluded to: the network of connections reflected by popular culture is losing its deep, diachronic dimension. Another relates to naming practices. Increasingly, given (personal) names lack any deep cultural (or familial) meaning or connection with the past. Even corporate and business names have become more fluid and subject to fashion than ever before.
My second claim is more controversial and involves value judgments. It is that these trends involve an impoverishment not only of the culture but also of our personal experiences – because the latter depend on the former in so many respects.
Those who have experienced some of these changes may feel a generalized sense of unease or loss, the loss of a particular kind of historically-rooted cultural belonging, of culturally-mediated continuity; a kind of nostalgia for a time – not so long ago – when the links to a shared past were still operational.
But, more than this, I am claiming that the very quality of our personal attachments is being adversely affected by these cultural changes. We rely on this diachronic (or historical) cultural dimension in order to function satisfactorily in a social way, and the stability or depth or meaningfulness of our personal relationships is being compromised to the extent that the culture in which we operate is cut adrift from its own history.