Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Boy in the Bubble: Our Perilous Postmodern Predicament

Each of us, whether aware of it or not, uses meta-narratives to explain the context of our lives, to give order to our human experience. The songs we listen to, the television shows and movies we watch, the books we read, all contribute to the reinforcing or undermining of our meta-narratives.

The New World Encyclopedia defines meta-narrative in this manner:
Meta-narrative or grand narrative or mater narrative is a term developed by Jean-François Lyotard to mean a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account to various historical events, experiences, and social, cultural phenomena based upon the appeal to universal truth or universal values.

The dominant Judeo-Christian meta-narrative of many centuries featured the idea of God at the center of human history, from its beginning to its end. In the last century a new met-narrative emerged, built on the foundation that either God had abandoned us or that God was not relevant. Key ideas in the meta-narrative of Modernism include the idea of progress and the idea of hope of a brighter tomorrow based on human potential, human achievement, human possibility.

The contrarian Postmodern meta-narrative declared that this hope was baseless. It would include the idea of abandonment and the recognition that all these advances have not brought us any closer to the utopian world we dreamt of in our naivete. It is in this sense that Paul Simon nails it in his song "The Boy in the Bubble" which opens his critically acclaimed 1986 album of the year, Graceland.

While listening to this song recently I was struck by the song's construction. Each verse is relatively short while each refrain is relatively long. The first verse deals with a terrorist act, a bomb in a baby carriage shattering a street scene. The second verse speaks of a massive drought and subsequent suffering. The next verses speak of sports heroes, and the miracles of modern medicine, including the boy in the bubble and a baby with a baboon heart transplant, real events that would have been unheard of a century before. Lasers, unimaginable wealth for the elite and other spectacles are all part of this incredible era, which leads to the heart of the song.

As you listen to each verse and chorus you hear news stories and then a narrator trying to comfort someone he loves. "These are the days of miracle and wonder, so don't cry, baby, don't cry."

It's all so weighted with the tragic, the emptiness of it all as the camera just pokes around capturing all this meaningless activity, flashing it before our eyes, including snapshots from distant galaxies... all of it intended to amaze... but leaves us yet more aware of this sham called progress. This world we live in is a very scary place.

What makes the song so incredibly pointed is that the narrator doesn't see it, and the one he's trying to comfort sees it perfectly. She's not only crying because of the brokenness of the world but because the one who seeks to comfort her is so oblivious to it. It's like Graham Greene's The End of the Affair in which the narrator tells the whole story, yet can't see that which is plain to everyone who hears his tale. Listen to it several times and hear the painfulness in his appeal at the end of each verse.

The Boy In The Bubble

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shopwindows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry

It was a dry wind
And it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth
And the dead sand
Falling on the children
The mothers and the fathers
And the automatic earth

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in the corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry

It’s a turnaround jump shot
It’s everybody jumpstart
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
Thinking of the Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart

And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
a loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires, and baby

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all, oh yeah
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry, don’t cry

© 1986 Words and Music by Paul Simon and Forere Mothoeloa

3 comments:

Jeffrey Woolverton said...

thought provoking. thanks, ed.

LEWagner said...

"The dominant Judeo-Christian meta-narrative of many centuries featured the idea of God at the center of human history, from its beginning to its end. In the last century a new met-narrative emerged, built on the foundation that either God had abandoned us or that God was not relevant. Key ideas in the meta-narrative of Modernism include the idea of progress and the idea of hope of a brighter tomorrow based on human potential, human achievement, human possibility."

The Judeo-Christian "meta-narrative" basically teaches that God crawled into a book called "the Bible", that if we "believe" according to the pastor's teaching of the Bible, we will be "saved".
I've never actually heard anybody say that "God abandoned us", or that "God is not relevant."
I do say that that damned religion is not relevant. The Creator is a living Spirit, and that Bible is a book filled with lies. Nobody can stick God into a box, but they've sure tried to, for millennia.
As far as hope of a brighter tomorrow through human enterprise ... I suppose we could quit trying.
Some have. And some have joined the dark side, and work AGAINST progress.

Ed Newman said...

L:
The notion of God having abandoned mankind is outlined in the book Hope in Time of Abandonment by Jacques Ellul. The list of people who feel, believe God is not relevant is fairly long, including people like Bertrand Russell and many others.
Regarding the statements about the Bible, there is a long history of intelligent and respected people who have a contrary opinion to that. Your beliefs on this matter are not ambiguous.
e.