As You Like It (Or What You Will)

9 Oct

The name of Raymond Douglas Davies is seldom mentioned when discussing religious poetry. His career has been too devoted to comforting his own conflicted ego to grant much space to the worship of any higher power. For no good reason, it would appear, there have been times, nonetheless, when, at their best, his words have captured some of the contradictions inherent in our dual natures as well as anyone’s.

Kinda

If, like me, you have trouble following a symphony, or maybe a jazz solo, and you have to take your art where you can find it, the path of popular song is frustratingly uneven. Moments of effortless perfection thrown away in the midst of a mass of motley heaps of random junk. Perhaps that’s the only way it can work. Little phrases combined with musical fragments in all sorts of permutations and variations until, occasionally, something that’s just right seems to pop up. You need to be forgiving, patient, devoted.

I’m so tired,
Tired of waiting…

It’s probably too late now, but I sometimes wish I’d developed a longer attention span. How John Milton, having gone blind, dependent on others’ hands, ever managed to compose the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ largely in his head is quite beyond me. While it’s true that with eyes closed, undistracted by the world, my inner voice can dictate coherent paragraphs, replay and revise them, by the time I come to set it all down it’s gone, inspiration flown…

Tired Of Waiting For You

This is the first Kinks lyric that brings the latent ambiguity in the early hits to the surface. Previously, in You Really Got Me they had sung, “You got me so I can’t sleep at night”, craftily leaving it up to the audience to decide whether this was because they were spending the night with the other person or not. It sells better – what’s a pop song if not popular? And wasn’t that the reason they decided to put You and Me in their titles, to make doubly sure it applied to everyone?

But in this song there’s a tension within the words, between the lines, as if they had a secret life of their own.

I was a lonely soul,
I had no body till I met you.

Contrary creatures that we are, sometimes all that our poor little lonely souls desire is the company of a fellow soul – no, wait, what we really need is another body, any body (help!) – bodies have feelings too, you know…. One way or another, we’re lost without each other.

But you keep me waiting
All of the time,
What can I do?

This is the point for me at which Ray Davies becomes interesting as a writer. I wonder, in those hectic few years in the mid-Sixties, how much of it was intentional; or how often the words simply wrote themselves, forcing their way up from his subconscious? If the mood’s right, he can still pull it off sometimes even today.

The minimal details allow us to conjure up all sorts of scenes for ourselves: “waiting” is elastic enough to stretch from a bus stop, to the front doorstep, to his efforts to go all the way, even to the domesticity of someone taking a little too long putting the cat out before cleaning their teeth. But then it neatly pulls us the other way, with an understated but absolute denial of what we’ve just heard, should you choose to take “waiting all of the time” literally. At this extreme, it’s doubtful he has anybody at all. Maybe he never exactly met them, and he’s aimlessly hoping for a second glimpse of someone he doesn’t really even know? And if you go with it that far, then it can snap back at you with an equally antisocial notion: becoming “tired of” somebody, once you’ve “had” them. It’s up to you.

It’s your life
And you can do what you want,
Do what you like…

It’s curious how many of the frantic themes of You Really Got Me are being re-examined. The neutrality about relative freedom above seems to have taken a step back from the earlier song’s “don’t ever set me free”. But there’s an underlying imperative in saying, “Do what you like.” If the singer seems to be offering freedom, I suspect it’s only in order to set limits on it.

But please don’t keep me waiting…

Does freedom always come with strings attached? Can it be defined, can it even exist, if it’s not in relation to something else? Maybe what he’s offering is a share in some sort of mutual freedom…?

Please don’t keep me waiting.

Okay, enough about the Kinks. But is there a duality – or reciprocity – in our conception of free will? Where does it reside? Is it under shared ownership? Does it belong to the body or the soul (or spirit, mind, whatever you like to call it)?

Either one would appear to be constrained by the other. You can’t exercise choice without a body – first, to supply you through the portals of the senses with samples of the world that are open to meaningful interpretation; secondly, to allow you the physical resources to act upon your findings. The body is equally dependent on its partner, without which it is of course mindless, forced to choose blindly, unable to make up its mind.

Of course, the traditional division between mental and physical labour described by dualism does not satisfy everyone.

Monists seek a Universe that is indivisibly One. Bishop Berkeley felt that there really ought to be no such thing as a “tree”. This is not (quite) as daft as it first appears: because to listen, to look, to name an object, these are all qualities of an observer, not of a tree itself. Observation is the act of relating two things separated in time and space; it describes a process, a verb. In a world which is undivided, everything is related and in continuous motion: a branch falling noiselessly, unseen and unknown, in a forest may displace a butterfly, a single flutter of whose wings could alter the future for ever – if only to affect tomorrow’s choice of breakfast cereal.

Other minds are happiest reducing everything to smaller and smaller parts in their quest to hunt down and name every last particle with whatever they believe it’s responsible for, until of the whole nothing is left.

So there is the porridge that is the Monoverse and then there are scientists circling round with their subjective notions of how best to slice us up – along with our brains – into a collection of carefully labelled objects. Of the two, I’m more partial to porridge – you can sweeten it with honey as well as take it with a pinch of salt.

Let’s talk about James Bond again. Last time round, he had Sean Connery’s face. When Roger Moore took over, James Bond suddenly became expert at raising a single eyebrow, independently of its neighbour. Secret agents in movies are like that; they seem to be able to acquire new skills almost at will. Unfortunately, my uncooperative features are far less obliging. I guess in reality it takes loads of practice and dedication to the acting craft.

So we can train our bodies to do as they’re told, but oddly, if we do it too well, they stop asking us what to do. They cut loose from the bonds of obedience and sneak off with some free will of their own. When you’re learning to do something, ride a bike (which I still am, people tell me), at first you instruct your limbs and they manage not to understand, most of the time. Then it all seems to go a lot better and pretty soon you can feel yourself flying down the road – wahey! It’s become second nature.

There you are, enjoying the scenery… but now who’s in charge as you race towards that bend? The other you, the one you start to blame whenever you think, just too late, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Automatic responses have started to take over. To be fair, more often than not, they don’t get in the way so much as step in to save us. We don’t always even notice. Experiences that seemed to be ours at the time – and that our memories will later tell tales with – have also been consumed by the body, digested, and will eventually be regurgitated as our physical and mental habits.

And so we find it’s not easy to unlearn how to ride a bicycle (although I do my best), nor to unlearn your first language, nor a million other little things, not least the way you do them; all those lovely little ways that make you so distinctively you.

You are a compound of these essences extracted from your past, recorded in your body and coded into your brain. But our life histories are frustratingly not laid out on shelves for us to pick and choose from: we have to make a wish – and usually, if we’re lucky, in some magical way the brain cells decide to respond, the details are called to mind and replayed one more time. We must always experience everything as happening right now; even our memories emerge blinking in the bright light of a permanent present.

Sometimes, in daydreams and idle moments, invisible cogs whirr in soundproofed rooms and ideas simply pop into our heads without being asked for, while in dreams most of us surrender our free will altogether, giving in to wild, fanciful notions, as the body seemingly ransacks our mental notes for ideas.

Every night, in fact, however much we grumble, distract or delay, the body pummels the mind into submission and we lose consciousness.

‘Cause I’m so tired…

And then we have no way out till the body decides otherwise.

Tired of waiting,
Tired of waiting for you…

We’ve been here before, but it does begin to look like the body has the upper hand. The “me” that defines us is trapped in an eternal present – a flexible, extended present, I should say. No doubt it’s a fine and comfortable place to be. Here we can make plans, entertain our thoughts, whistle favourite tunes, but we must rely on the bodily contents of our brain and its secret workings to unlock our past, so that we can bring any of this at all back to mind later. Of course, we can write things down…

There.

But then you might wonder, are these words still fully mine – even as I reread them – or do they already belong to a me that’s passed? And as we’re both reading my words, how much are they now also yours?

I was a lonely soul,
I had no body till I met you.

Our attempts to communicate may be written, spoken, enacted, sung. Wherever we go we rearrange the physical world ever so slightly to make it more intelligible to ourselves. And these marks we make also belong to the people we share our world with. Everything we touch, and everyone we meet, in turn leaves a mark on us. The words of Ray Davies’ song are now also part of this story, but when you’re listening to me, you’re also listening to him.

In setting down what’s on our minds, we make our footprints follow us, so that when we look back, we’ll find a familiar trail, along which we hope to retrace our steps and experience our thoughts anew.

These recognisable traces of us in the world may remain private or become public according to how revealing they may be, not just the degree to which they’re on display. The difference between personal and shared is in the extent to which we can recover the context and make sense of it, whether it’s in a journal left open for all to see or locked away in our heads.

But you keep me waiting
All of the time…

As ever, we’re dependent on the body to go rooting around in its brain for the right connections, for memories to flood back, ideas to form, options to appear; and then, while we’re musing contentedly to ourselves, our inner ear listens in, with its silent assistants who filter, edit, categorise and store our trains of thought and passing emotions, perhaps deciding to sort them through in our occasionally troublesome dreams. (Are nightmares like ghosts, coming back to haunt us; unable to rest until they’ve been released from their spell?)

What can I do?

When it’s time to do something – and it always is – we are of the moment, and no two are alike. It all depends on the circumstances, which are always arriving just in time, and all at once, from the past; converging briefly in the present; before disappearing back into the receding past: where we are now, how we arrived and where we’re heading, everything that we’ve ever done or has happened to us, we’ve ever dreamed or were planning to do.

The body’s gift to us is not to keep us waiting too long in the dark, but to allow the soul the luxury of making all the most interesting choices from moment to moment, while it takes care of as much of the day-to-day goings-on as it can. To experience free will is to find ourselves in the act of choosing, permanently caught in the act.

With our mind so deeply encoded in our bodies, the body is constantly seeking us out, invoking what the mind has generously already shared with it; we are so intimately intermingled that our soul is scattered into our physical makeup and has taken root there. Beyond that: we’re scattered into the physical world and it into us, and scattered some more into each other’s lives. We’re constantly growing into ourselves, so whichever direction we turn next, there we already are.

It’s your life
And you can do what you want,
Do what you like…

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