Monday, December 3, 2012

The Teacher

In "Old," Simon drops the names of  Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha, but seems to give his own religious heritage, that of Judaism, short shrift, not even explicitly mentioning it. Perhaps Simon was saving that discussion for another song-- namely, this one. Here, the imagery seems to come largely from The Five Books of Moses.

Or, at least, from his Tablets, on which the words of The Ten Commandments were inscribed by God. This Teacher's "words are like tablets of stone," as well.

The fact that he is a "teacher" as opposed to other religious titles (reverend, minister, priest, etc.) is indicative as well. Several major figures in Judaism are known by honorific appellations, such as Adam the First, David the King, Elijah the Prophet, Samson the Strong, Abraham our Father... and Moses our Teacher.

Even the lines "I was only a child of the city/ My parents were of immigrant stock" could refer to the situation of one of the Jewish slaves to Pharaoh in the city of Cairo, whose parents were descendants of Jacob's sons, themselves residents of The Promised Land and not Egyptian natives.

And like Moses, The Teacher leads his flock on an exodus: "Gather your goods and follow me," he intones, meaning to literally travel after him as well as to follow his teachings. The Teacher's warning is also Biblical in tone; "...or you shall surely die" is a line often repeated in the Old Testament (In the In the Blue Light version, the line is different, shifting to the death of the Egyptian slave-drivers: "As all around you perish.")

But this is not Moses, merely a Moses-like figure. How do we know? This teacher leads his followers to a mountain, but not to Mt. Sinai. First, the Children of Israel never ascended the mountain themselves as those in this song do. Second, while it may snow every once in a great while in the Sinai Desert, Moses encountered no "napkin of snow" there, and it was not "cold" enough to prevent people from "catch[ing] their breath" at The Revelation (this line is absent from the In the Blue Light version). Further, Moses' followers ate manna from Heaven, and these forage for "berries." Lastly, Moses dies. This Teacher enigmatically "divided in two."

Very well, then, while this teacher in some ways recalls and evokes Moses, he is not meant to invoke, to be, Moses. So who is he? He is some sort of charismatic leader who can persuade people to leave a nice, warm "city" and subsist on "berries and roots" in the frozen wilderness.

And what is his very alluring message? "It's easier to learn than unlearn." You certainly can't unlearn things where you are; you have to move outside of your comfort zone, away from the things and people that would re-enforce your spiritual status quo. Abraham was told by God to leave his land and home-- and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David all had to as well-- when they underwent spiritual growth.

In the In the Blue Light version of this song, however, we have two different lines here following "it's easier." Now we find, "it's easier to navigate the sea of sadness than shield the fragile mind from madness." The sea could be the Re(e)d Sea, split by Moses, but the line also means it's easier to just go ahead and mourn and grieve than to enter a state of denial, try to pretend everything's fine... and then try to prevent that cognitive dissonance from driving that mind insane. In other words, hard as it is, let's leave Egypt than remain slaves, just to enforce the ultimately untenable status quo.

After The Teacher ages to a certain degree, he undergoes a division usually reserved for one-celled organisms-- he splits in half (perhaps this is an allusion to a schism among his followers, either among Jews or between Jews and Christians). One half eats, and the other drinks. The eating half consumes "the forests and  fields" the other drinks-- not the rivers or seas as we might expect (perhaps there are none at the tops of freezing mountains)-- but the "moisture from the clouds."

This is surprising, considering that he could not have been hungry to begin with. After all, it was partially "abundance" that slowed his "step." And, in fact, the followers are "amazed at the power of his appetite." (To consume all that-- and on a full stomach, too!) In the In the Blue Light version however, it is implied they somehow should have known of his appetite, and they were "fools" to be amazed by it.

The Teacher, who so far has seems powerful but still human, reveals himself to be some sort of unearthly force, if we are to take this imagery literally. If not, he seems to abandon his beliefs of frugality once he experiences "abundance" and becomes a megalomaniac, commandeering every resource and leaving his followers with nothing.

"Sometimes we don't know who we are," the follower laments. Of course, he means himself, but his "we" could include The Teacher, who seems to have forgotten himself. "Sometimes force overpowers us and we cry," the follower continues. First, the Teacher's persuasion led them on a quest into the wilderness, only to abandon them to their privations, but again, The Teacher himself might have been overpowered by a greater force: greed.

Lastly, he calls out to The Teacher to "carry [him] home." Yes, he wants to go back to somewhere warm already-- enough with this endless wandering in the wilderness!-- but he might also be calling The Teacher to return to his own senses and mission: the care of his flock. Maybe by remembering his goals, he will come back to himself. It is unlikely that he will; even before leaving, The Teacher asserted that they were "past the point of no return."

The follower calls out to his leader, recalcitrant though he may be. The follower does not, however, call out to God! Why not? Well, when the followers were subsisting on berries and roots, The Teacher helped provide those. But "The Dreamer of Love" was not helpful even to that meager degree. "Deeper and deeper," He was asleep "on a quilt of stars." Again, when The Teacher began to ravage the land and sky with his insatiability, The Dreamer only slept deeper still.

This is a tale of double abandonment. The Teacher led his followers into a place of danger, and rather than protecting them or taking them to a new home, simply begins to satisfy himself. And God is only interested in dreaming of perfect love, not in the messiness of life.

This profoundly sad song ends with an unanswered plea: "Carry me home!" Perhaps, it is time to stop being followers, to stop asking to be carried. Perhaps it is time to lead themselves out of the wilderness. To walk.

The version on In the Blue Light, however, ends entirely differently. The whole plea to "carry me home," which at least held a faint hope, is gone. The replacement verse is an epilogue that echoes less the Israelite wilderness-wandering but a much more recent episode of Jewish history: the Holocaust.

Whatever did become of his "followers' fate?" Sadly, "all that remains... are the remnants of charred photographs." The photographic technology mentioned signals that we are in the modern era, and the fact that the photos are "charred" relates to the literal meaning of the word "holocaust": "wholly burned." (The idea of photos being "all that's left" of someone? Simon used it before, in the song "Old Friends.")

Meanwhile, what became of The Teacher? He is "buried under the rubble of stone," whether those of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem-- twice demolished in ancient times (by the Babylonians and Romans)-- or those of the European synagogues incinerated during, and in the years after, Kristallnacht.

The first thing we learned about The Teacher, though, was that his words like stone. Surely, even if he and his followers perished, at least his words survived? They might, but... "The wind reads his words, and laughs."

In fairness, perhaps those generations did succumb and fall. But the Jewish people is still very vibrant after 4,000 years of oppression and persecution. There are currently three Jews on the US Supreme Court, out of nine slots, for instance. A full quarter of all Nobel Prize winners have been Jews from all around the globe. And even the besieged State of Israel-- no matter what you think of it-- is very vital after 70 years, and continues to contribute to the world in everything from medicine to the arts to disaster and famine relief.

Does the wind laugh at The Teacher's words? Let it. The words are like tablets of stone, and they will last longer than any passing wind.

Next Song: Look at That


  1. I don’t know why this album is so overlooked. Every track is beautiful, thoughtful, spiritual. This album has some of Paul’s most captivating metaphors and delicious imagery.

    Thank you for writing this blog. I use it whenever I need guidance for puzzling out a Simon lyric, but I also just enjoy knowing that other people love puzzling over his work as much as I do.


  2. Andrea-- Thanks, I truly enjoyed writing and and coming back each week to hear reader reactions. But yes. Simon himself, on his recent Farewell tour, did not include any songs from this album in his set list (in the show I saw).

  3. No, he didn’t play anything from it here in Seattle last month. But what a transcendent show nevertheless. Lots of lovely surprises!

  4. Just a small thing, but the line you wrote as "I was an only child of the city" is actually "I was only a child of the city". I know it's a tiny difference but the deliberate use of "only child" would be important in the song if he meant it. Still - love your insights into all Paul's songs - thanks heaps.

  5. Anon-- Thanks so much for catching that error. Luckily, I didn't make anything of the child in question being an "only child," which is a certain category of person. I fixed the post. And thanks also for the compliments.