"Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."
Henry David Thoreau
There's a beautiful moment in the Coen Brothers' new film 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (actually there are quite a number of beautiful moments, but I'll start here with this one). Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, down and out upon the scene —the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960's. He's broke, bumming a place to sleep from night to night on the different couches of a small circuit —from patrons of the art to fellow folkies. Still the singer has his dreams of making it in "show business" —as he quaintly tries to appreciate the meaning of the term. His record label has allegedly sent a copy of his solo album 'Inside Llewyn Davis' to a promoter of some accomplishment in Chicago. As his desperate circumstances seem to grow more and more desperate the singer decides to set out for Chicago to take his fate by the horns. It's something of an epic journey getting there (encounters with John Goodman always succeed in bringing that epic dimension to a Coen Brothers' narrative) and at long last when the singer comes face to face with his hope for fame the promoter allows as how he hasn't heard or even seen this record."Play me something from 'Inside Llewyn Davis'," he asks of Davis.
They sit together facing each other out upon the floor in a darkened empty performance space, low light streaming in from a door left open. Davis shares a heart rending version of the traditional ballad 'The Death of Queen Jane'—the moment is a triumph, transcendent (and filmed that way). There's barely a second's pause as the promoter considers what he's heard.
"I don't see any money in it," he observes.
The story doesn't end there or resort to some scene of dramatic confrontation. Instead it is just this poetic instance of perfect failure. Quiet Llewyn Davis puts his guitar back in its case, at that moment knowing his dream defeated, over with, that knowledge plain on his face. He doesn't argue his case. His song had done that, stated his best. He'll resolve to resign his dream of fame and set out with the merchant marine, no more a folk singer by trade. (He'll fail at that, too —this is that dark a comedy.)
It's a dark scene in a dark and melancholy movie; but somehow it put me in mind of hope.
It's important, I think, to appreciate the historical moment of this dramatic moment. This Greenwich Village, this Chicago and the road between them was in the America of the early 1960's. Don Draper was sipping highballs, touting 'the new and improved' and screwing secretaries uptown in his high rise, just a few blocks from these cold water flats down in the village with their fire escape sense of address. Madmen advertised and Modern was the mainstream design aesthetic, Kennedy spoke of a 'New Frontier' and MacNamara ran the Pentagon —Mutually Assured Destruction was the very latest in political science.(Kubrick was just started working on 'Dr. Strangelove' about then). The very idea of progress had gone insane. Set against this backdrop, these young aching artists sang the old songs, ballads from Appalachia, blues from The Delta. For all their politics were Leftist and Progressive in name, these young singers and artists and poets were the ones standing astride the tracks of supposed progress and shouting 'Stop!'—or perhaps singing it sweetly.
Did they succeed or fail? That's a question you could answer a number of different ways, considering the movement, the aesthetic, the different artists as individuals. Did they find a receptive audience? Did they change the world at all? Have a lasting impact?
This is where I come around to the idea of hope. The very next day after I saw the Coen Brothers' film, and drove home trying to explain my reactions to it to my son, I came across this article by Rebecca Solnit in Salon.com —about hope of all things, something she describes as "an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism." As Solnit sees it, "[o]ptimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all..." That mystery and its large dimension allow for meaning and purpose even in failure, beautiful failure."[W]e don’t know how it will turn out... anything is possible."
You mightn't save the world with song —or even yourself, but there is something in the trying.
In Solnit's article she maps an aspect of hope that disappoints those who want to consider success or failure in obvious and immediate terms. She points to the example of Thoreau, dying in obscurity, owning more of his own books than he ever sold, yet long after he was dead and gone influencing the minds of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, changing the world that way. She shares an anecdote about Charles Black, how as a teenager growing up in Austin, Texas he had a chance encounter with music that changed him —and through him the world.
He was riveted and transformed by the beauty of New Orleans jazzman Louis Armstrong’s music, so much so that he began to reconsider the segregated world he had grown up in. “It is impossible to overstate the significance of a 16-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black,” he recalled decades later.
Charles Black would grow up to be a lawyer, dedicating his life to racial justice and civil rights. He would help reverse segregation nationwide, aiding the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Draw that thread from the mournful horn blowing 'St. James Infirmary.'
That notion of the power of music to transform the world subtly and powerfully —even unknowingly, that hope surviving failure —to me that's what that gorgeous moment in the Coen Brothers film was all about. A little later in the film Llewyn Davis goes to visit his father who is failing in health at a nursing home. He wants to say goodbye as he'll soon be off to sea with the merchant marine —or so he thinks. The old man is non-responsive, practically catatonic but for how miserable he seems. Yet as his son sings him a few verses of Ewan MacColl's 'Shoals of Herring' —a song 'he always used to like' —a look of sweet ease and peace passes over the old sick man's face —only for a moment time and its weight and worry falls away for a father and his son. There is this tiny instance of timelessness (the same kind of eternity Solnit describes for hope). It's only another moment, gone the next, but that moment as captured in this sad dark movie speaks so eloquently of those songs and that time, the difference they were truly intended to make in this world.
Call Llewyn Davis a failure and I can relate to him (though he sings and plays guitar better than I ever dreamed). I, too, have taken my stabs at fame. There's a novel never published somewhere in the house, some poems and songs I've written and recorded. I wrote a speech once for a politician I admired which he never quite gave. (My CD collection is much like Thoreau's library.) I don't know what any of it amounts to at this point, but I think I know what I've tried, what my intentions were. They were stabs at fame, but also statements of belief, prayers of a sort, blind stabs at saving the world. I know that sounds grandiose and silly at the same time, but there is in the creative some amount of that instinct to save the world —to save ourselves —our each and every lonely soul. We so often fail in the attempt, forgetting ourselves, losing and leaving something behind. Bottled messages to wash ashore somewhere else if ever —or scattered seeds.
We mightn't save the world with song —or even ourselves, but there is something in the trying.
Solnit offers the notion of seeds to describe the hope in these arts and offerings —the trying.
(Thoreau would be proud of her).
I don’t know what’s coming. I do know that, whatever it is, some of it will be terrible, but some of it will be miraculous, that term we reserve for the utterly unanticipated, the seeds we didn’t know the soil held.
Somehow those seeds and those songs combine for me. Maybe it's some aspect of them carried on the wind like in Dylan's old song, the one with all those 'how many' questions answered with that resigned kind of refrain: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." Something in the asking of those questions manages to matter in the end though —the singing of those songs does, too —all of them, though we might only notice the seeds that flower, the songs and the singers that become famous.