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    When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again

    Yet another song you shouldn’t listen to on a crowded Tokyo commuter train. It was raining yesterday, the sort of chilly rain that reminds you how open to the elements you are as an organism, and in combination with Atsushi’s having gone back home on Thursday night, it probably made me a little more downcast and emotionally susceptible than usual. That wasn’t all of it, though. Tokyo isn’t populated by self-centered rock stars with celebrity doctors attending to them, but it is the sort of place where people frequently feel as if they’re being prodded from all sides to bury what they really think and perform, perform, perform for their handlers.

    I know that that’s a reductive picture. In the same way that “America is an individualistic society” doesn’t mean that we don’t have social rules and conformism, Japan is a free country with a lot of personalities on display. But last night, everyone looked unusually tired and spaced-out (first day back at work after a week-long holiday) and the rain and dark made the train feel like its own little isolated world. Hearing Roger Waters sing, “There is no pain / You are receding,” made me ache; it was so oppressively fitting. (Well, except that for most on the train, the show was over for the week and not about to begin again until Monday.)

    Despite its specific resonance for me, I don’t believe that I would try to argue that “Comfortably Numb” is a great modern poem, though. I was thinking that wry thought on the walk home from the station because my copy of Camille Paglia’s all-new book finally arrived a few days ago. I don’t know what took it so long to get here–amazon.co.jp can be weird that way. Anyway, it feels like another throwback to college, since the last time we had a whole new book of essays by Camille to read, I was a junior. Most of it is great. Even when she’s reading very familiar poems, she brings something new to them: I’m a big, bad Dickinson fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as chilled by “Because I could not stop for Death–” as I was when reading Paglia’s essay on it the other night. Her (Camille’s, not Emily’s) pushy, idiosyncratic voice has an odd way of making her readings universal. You get the feeling that you, too, with all your quirks, could find deep reserves of beauty and meaning in the same artifact, even if the actual points she makes sometimes seem a bit overworked.

    But, I’m sorry, not even Camille can brandish enough libidinousness and cosmic-geological history to make Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a great poem, much less “possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy.'” I am fully convinced that there are two pages’ worth of Significance in the sixteen words of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” But the six pages (!) devoted to “Woodstock” are the only passage in the book when you get the sense that Paglia yearns for literary value that just isn’t there. (I’m not the first to think this, as you might imagine.) And, while Camille almost always surprises you somewhere, about Joni Mitchell’s piece she says exactly what you expect her to say and no more: Flower power was a beautiful but incomplete dream; the Sixties visualized men and women as equal partners in civilization but underestimated aggression and sex differences; those fighter jets turning into butterflies are, like, totally trippy symbols of melting back into nature; and so on, and so forth.

    All good points, yes, but there’s another problem. When you finish reading her essay and go back to the lyrics, you find something you don’t with Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens: you have to keep consciously reminding yourself what Paglia said about this or that line in order to feel its importance. Despite Mitchell’s clear and mostly timeless images, the poem doesn’t reveal more about itself unless freighted with Paglia’s nostalgic interpretation. It’s an oddly satisfying way to end the book nonetheless. She’s so touchingly eager to make readers feel the vibrancy of the visions of the Sixties, even in the face of what four succeeding decades have done to them, that it makes you feel almost protective of her. And how often do you get the chance to feel protective of Camille Paglia?

    6 Responses to “When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again”

    1. billy-jay says:

      A bit off topic: I’m pretty sure David Gilmour sang the line you referred to. Waters and Gilmour alternated singing on that song.



    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Gosh-darn it–I even looked that up because I wasn’t sure. Maybe the page I found was about a live version, or something; it definitely said Waters was singing. (I mean, I believe you. I’m probably the only 33-year-old white guy in the Anglosphere who doesn’t actually own a copy of The Wall.)

    3. John says:

      Nope, I don’t either.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      So what do you listen to, John, if you don’t mind my asking? Not that it’s any of my business–just that we’ve had so many exchanges about pop-culture disconnect, I feel as if I should know.

    5. Mark Alger says:


      In RE: feeling protective toward la Paglia.


      Not very often. Tough little bint. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of her facing down Gloria Steinem that time…


    6. John says:


      I’m working up a post on that topic. I’ll send you the URL when I’m done. I’ll give you a hint: the first concert I took my wife (then girlfriend) to had a big ol’ Southern Cross draped across the back of the stage. She’s a Chinese immigrant from NY, so you can imagine the hilarity that ensued. Luckily, she still married me. But she owed me for dragging me to a Yanni concert. Owed me big time.

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