Friday, May 27, 2011

Silent Eyes

Paul Simon, most people know, is Jewish. In the song "Hearts and Bones," he states this outright calling himself and is recent ex-wife Carrie Fisher "one and one-half wandering Jews."

While he discusses religion in general at various points through his songs, his earliest religious recordings are Christian in nature (he and Garfunkel were singing on a Christian radio show in England around the time of their first official album), and there are references to Christianity, and other faiths, throughout his repertoire, from "Old" to his recent "Getting Ready for Christmas Day."

And while these other faiths do include Judaism, this is one of his most openly and outwardly Jewish songs. It is about Jerusalem, Judaism's most sacred city and the capital-- ancient, modern, eternal-- of Israel.

The last line in the song, "what was done," does not seem to refer to any particular event, or news item, regarding Jerusalem, at the time of the song's release (1975). In fact, the most recent major news about Jerusalem was (from a Jewish and Israeli perspective) the best news the city had received in centuries-- that its most sacred section, The Old City, with The Western Wall-- was once again in Jewish hands (as of the 1967 Six Day War). The reunification itself was such a historic milestone that it is celebrated annually in Israel with its own holiday.

So the profoundly mournful tone of the piece must refer to Jerusalem's millennia of suffering. According to the Jewish periodical Moment Magazine, "During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times."

The line "bed of stone" refers to a particular material called Jerusalem stone, a local grade of limestone used to build everything from The Western Wall to modern office buildings and homes. It has a reflective quality, and in many lighting conditions, the city does seem to glow yellow, as referenced in an Israeli songwriter's beloved song "Jerusalem of Gold."

It is an ongoing source of worry, in the Jewish community, that Israelis themselves see Jerusalem as a proud, thriving, and even glowing city while American Jews see it much as Simon does-- a city shrouded in mourning. American Jews are raised with stories of Jerusalem's fall at the hands of the Babylonians and Romans, and we see media coverage of various wars and terror attacks today, and assume that the city is a battle zone and always has been. Slightly fewer than half of American Jews have been to Israel-- the last number I saw was 41%-- so the kind of personal familiarity with the city that would belay this image is lacking as well.

Turning back to the song itself, the speaker of the song seems helpless and helplessly detached. He "watches" in "silence." In other words, not only can he not help Jerusalem, but he can't put himself in a position to do so. In fact-- no one can: "No one will comfort her/ Jerusalem weeps alone."

Nevertheless, he feels that he should feel an attachment: "She calls my name." The city "burns like a flame"; it is not actually afire (as it has been during various battles), but it is undergoing an intense emotion, as in the Sting song "I Burn for You." This "burning" is linked to the "calling," they are connected by the word "and."

So here is the city, yearning and begging for his attachment. The choir surges, then subsides. Has the connection been made? Maybe not... he still watches with "silent eyes."

Only now, his eyes are "burning" like the city. He has caught the fire. He feels the desire for connection welling within him, and he even starts to move toward the city.

But as he pushes on through the "desert," he only gets "halfway to Jerusalem." He can see the city, but he can't get all the way there, which would mean to speak for her. The "desert"--the empty space between himself and the city, is too intense (the word "burning" might also apply here), and he cannot complete his journey. He can see the city's "sorrow," he can even share that sorrow... but he still cannot speak words of comfort or defense to mitigate that sorrow.

We have, for most of the song, silence: "Silent eyes," "watching," "no one will comfort." Then the city "weeps" and "calls." And only gets silence in response. Movement, yes, but not a completed one, only a "halfway" one.

This state cannot last, he concludes. God will judge him for not completing the journey. In the end, God will force him to speak-- to defend himself as if in court ("called as witnesses") --and explain why he did not speak to console or uphold Jerusalem.

The song phrases that idea differently. He-- and in fact "we... all"-- will have to "speak what was done." This is more profound, in that "we" will have to say... nothing. Because nothing was done. Nothing was even said. We stood there and watched Jerusalem "weep."

You know that thing parents say when children cry over, say, not getting ice cream: "I'll give you something to cry about"? Well, this is a similar situation. God's point? "You want to say nothing? I'll give you the chance to say nothing. I'm going to ask you what you did when Jerusalem wept. Then-- then!-- you will really be saying nothing."

On a larger scale, the speaker implies, we must all answer for what we did not do to stop suffering in general, in Jerusalem or during the Holocaust or at any time or place. We see the devastation wreaked by war and nature, we hear the "weeping," but we only watch with "silent eyes."

And if we say nothing, then when we are asked to speak for ourselves, we will have nothing to say.

The theme of "silence" has been part of Simon's lyrics since "Sound of Silence." The inability to connect on an interpersonal level runs through songs like "Dangling Conversation," "Most Peculiar Man," "Sparrow," "Bleeker Street," and many others. Here, Simon explores what happens when that detachment is writ large, on the stage of world events and history. Or rather, what doesn't happen.

IMPACT: The song appears in the soundtrack of the Warren Beatty movie Shampoo. "Have a Good Time" was also supposed to appear in that movie, but did not. "Feelin' Groovy" also makes a very brief, but recognizable, appearance.

The song was sampled by Access Immortal for a track titled "Authentic Made."

Next Song: Late in the Evening


  1. Regarding the meaning of the last lines of the song "Silent Eyes". Your interpretation may be correct. But then again - it may be that Paul Simon is drawn toward Jerusalem but sees the injustice inflicted upon some of the peoples in that region and feels that the people who abide this behavior will be asked "to speak what was done". And so he can't go all the way to Jerusalem because of his conscience

  2. Bobby-- Thanks for your comment. As it happens, Simon has been to Israel and performed there. Perhaps not by the time he had written the song, though. In any case, Jerusalem has changed hands many times in its long history, and rarely peacefully. It is fair to day, however, that some of its conquerors have been willing to come forth to examine their own behaviors and "speak what was done," and some have not. Simon's hope is that someday they will all be compelled to do so, by the very God in whose Name they say they acted.