Monday, March 18, 2013

Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean

Donovan, seeming to quote the I Ching or some such mystical source, wrote: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." 

Simon opens this song with "Once upon a time there was an ocean/ But now it's a mountain range." But Simon seems to be inspired more by the history of geological processes. The fossils of giant sea creatures have been found in what are now deserts, and layers of silt of varying thickness are exposed in the striations of cliff-sides that were clearly once river beds. This evidence proves that geothermal bursts, tectonic shifts and glacial plowing have reshaped our planet dozens of times over... and continue to. Even Hawaii is really a mountain range, if you ignore the ocean covering most of the slopes.

But all of that is a prelude to Simon's theme: "Nothing is different, but everything's changed."

The speaker this time is clearly not Simon, but someone with a "dead-end job" that he "think[s] about quitting every day of the week." The "view from [his] window" is "brown and... bleak," just like his outlook in general. "When am I gonna get outta here?" he wonders aloud.

He longs for something to shock him out of his doldrums, perhaps a winning "lottery ticket," which will allow him to live life to the fullest, to "shake every limb in the Garden of Eden."

And here, he ties in his geological metaphor: "Once upon a time, I was an ocean"--  a limitless, wild person-- "But now I'm a mountain range"-- solid and stolid. "Something unstoppable," as irrefutable as a glacier or volcano, put him here, and here he is.

He prides himself on his ability to accept anything, even a simple life, with apartment so small he calls it a "room," and no stove, just a "hot plate." "But I'm easy," he boasts, "I can drift with the drift." This sounds like snow, not a rigid mountain. Still, he has cast himself to fate. It's brown and bleak, but oh well. He's not stuck in a rut, he consoles himself, he's down in the groove!

It's not like "home" was better, anyway: "Never going home again... I never think about home."

So he is both miserable and blase. Since he can't change anything, he takes pride is being able to accept his lot and not rail uselessly about it, even if he does grumble.

"But then comes a letter from home." Well, it's not a lottery ticket, but it does have an affect. "The handwriting's fragile and strange." Once again, "something unstoppable" has been set into motion.

From the evidence, that something is death. And, once again, "nothing is different, but everything's changed." His parent, or whomever, was dead to him anyway ("I never think about home") so his life has not been affected in any outward, visible way. But yet...

How do we know that he goes back home to attend a funeral? We see "stained glass" (the website has a typo-- "stain glass"-- but the liner notes have the correct term, as does the Lyrics book), so it's probably a church. "The frayed cuffs and collars" would be on a worn suit, such as one worn by the deceased. These were "mended by halos of golden thread," calling to mind angels. Oh, and there is a "choir," singing "hymns."

And then this pretty line: "All the... family names/ Came fluttering down leaves of emotion," giving the image of a tree (a family tree?) losing its leaves in autumn. We imagine our speaker, sitting in church at this funeral, hearing the songs and eulogies drifting down upon him from the pulpit. "Leaves" also means "pages" of a book, and at funerals, "family" members in attendance sign their "names" in a guestbook.

The choir is singing a hymn we have never heard of, titled "Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean." It is highly unlikely that a church where Creationism is preached is going to present a sacred song about plate tectonics and the Pangea Theory. So we must assume that our speaker hears something in this music that speaks to him, and this is how it lands on his ears.

Also, instead of the imposing, overwhelming line "something unstoppable set into motion," we have the lyrical, gentle "fluttering down as leaves of emotion" (another website typo; it omits the word "as"). Even so, the almost imperceptible touch of a falling "leaf" seems to have turned him back from a "mountain" to an "ocean," or at least nudged him in that direction.

He still has the same job now, when he leaves the church after the funeral. He is still going back to his "room" and his "hot plate" after the burial. Even his clothes are the same as when he arrived. So "nothing is different," right?

Yes, except for the fact that "everything's changed."

We don't know what happens next. We don't know if he goes home, looks up the classifieds, and finds a new job that gets him a better apartment. We don't know if he stops "drift[ing] with the drift" and becomes more of a purposeful "ocean"  with forceful tides. For all we know, he stays back in his "home" town and reconnects with his family.

But we do know that the experience was a moving one, and that he was moved.

This song is sort of a companion to the previous track. In "Another Galaxy," an impending wedding spurs a sudden movement. The bride was moving too fast in a direction she didn't like, and jerked the wheel, only to speed in another direction. Here, a funeral shakes a man out of his rut. He was not driving at all, but now he is.

There is a term in communications theory: "speech act." A "speech act" is something that happens only because we say it has. Such instances are actually quite common: a business transaction, a speeding ticket, a graduation, a wedding, the naming of a baby, the inauguration of a president. Nothing is different afterward-- we are biologically the same as a minute before-- but since we all say and accept that everything has changed, it has. We behave differently. There are even legal consequences.

This is a great part of what it means to be human. That we can change completely, yet show no change outwardly. Donovan sings, in the same song as above, "Caterpillar sheds its skin to find the butterfly within." Well, we humans don't need such obvious shows of change. We can turn from mountains to oceans while sitting still, listening to a song.

Next Song: That's Me.

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