Sunday, April 22, 2012

Language, Rock 'n Roll and Love

It’s interesting to study the history and evolution of language. We seldom realize that many words once had very different meanings. For example, the word “awful” once meant something wonderful, delightful, amazing… full of awe. Today, a New York chef will not be too pleased when you tell him the main course was awful.

The word manufacture has also changed significantly. The Latin root from which this word is derived meant “to make by hand.” In olden times to say a thing was manufactured meant that this product had been hand crafted by craftsmen. Now it means the opposite. A manufacturing plant today produces machine-made goods. Strange.

There are an abundance of examples of words with meanings that have altered over time. A balloon was once a game that people played with an inflated leather ball. Evidently the first hot air balloons in France must have reminded people of this ball, so they borrowed the existing word. The word cute had once been acute, meaning “keenly perceptive” and shrewd. Today we call babies cute and puppies cute, but I doubt that either of these are keenly perceptive in the manner of the original word.

The word propaganda is another word that has undergone change. It is actually a Latin word that was introduced in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV in response to the global rise of Protestantism. He formed an “Office for the Propagation of the Faith” to oversee Catholic mission efforts in the New World. (The official use of inquisitions was instituted four centuries earlier in 1232 by Pope Gregory IX.) The Nazi use of propaganda pretty much placed a stake in the heart of this word representing something good.

The preceding is simply a setup for a brief discussion of another word that has undergone change, and that is love, though maybe the problem isn't the word itself but the English language and its use of the word.

C.S. Lewis wrote a richly insightful discourse on this which became his book The Four Loves in which he outlines the meanings behind four Greek words that are translated "love" in our language, but which convey distinctly different meanings: storge (familial love), philadelphia (friendship), eros (romance), and agape (selfless, unconditional love.)

The distinctions Lewis makes are painted with such detail that a single reading of the book permanently etches the four images in one's mind. But Lewis makes another distinction in this slim volume that is often less remembered. Perhaps this is due in part because the book is titled The Four Loves and once we get that, we think we've gotten it.

An analysis of modern rock 'n roll brings it home with a measure of clarity, though also much of it serves to dilute and obfuscate the word's meanings. For example, I was listening to the the Rolling Stones song Happy the other day, and noted how in the chorus Mick Jagger implores, "I need a love to keep me happy." And since our minds are a catalog of contemporary music, a dozen other songs came readily to mind from Love Me Do to Honey Don't.

Pop music is saturated with songs that use the word love. But Lewis' book examines love from a different angle beyond the loves its title is derived from. An important distinction that he makes is between "need-love" and "gift-love."

The painful pleading in a song like, "Baby, I need your loving" can strike a chord in our hearts because we've all known this neediness. When we were infants it's all we ever knew. Who has not wanted the affirmations of love to assuage our isolation and loneliness?

But there is another kind of love, a love more mature, perhaps not unlike that captured by Coltrane's classic A Love Supreme. On his album Shot of Love Dylan masterfully brings this clarification through his song Watered-Down Love. In a world of needy hearts Dylan admonishes those who would take advantage of the needy. He also explains the difference between the common need-relationship and the higher way.

Watered-Down Love

Love that’s pure hopes all things
Believes all things, won’t pull no strings
Won’t sneak up into your room, tall, dark and handsome
Capture your heart and hold it for ransom

You don’t want a love that’s pure
You wanna drown love
You want a watered-down love

Love that’s pure, it don’t make no false claims
Intercedes for you ’stead of casting you blame
Will not deceive you or lead you into transgression
Won’t write it up and make you sign a false confession

You don’t want a love that’s pure
You wanna drown love
You want a watered-down love

Love that’s pure won’t lead you astray
Won’t hold you back, won’t mess up your day
Won’t pervert you, corrupt you with stupid wishes
It will not make you envious, it don’t make you suspicious

You don’t want a love that’s pure
You wanna drown love
You want a watered-down love

Love that’s pure ain’t no accident
Always on time, is always content
An eternal flame, quietly burning
Never needs to be proud or loud or restlessly yearning

You don’t want a love that’s pure
You wanna drown love
You want a watered-down love

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