Friday, November 8, 2019

Patterns: Paul Simon's Prosaic Pathos

The Beatles and Bob Dylan may get more ink today, but the songs of Simon & Garfunkel voiced the isolation and soul-searching as meaningfully as any artist of the Sixties. We listened to their albums, studied their lyrics in English class, and deeply reflected on the things they were saying.

"Patterns" was a song from their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. At the time I was unaware it first appeared on Simon's 1965 album The Paul Simon Songbook. We had a record player in Mr. Sebes' art class and two girls there seemed to control what music we listened to there. It was Simon & Garfunkel continuously. And I don't believe anyone ever objected.

The song "Patterns" is actually pretty bleak. It states that life is a labyrinthine maze in which we are trapped like rats. There are patterns but we never seem to find our way out or have any control over the game.

According Wikipedia, "A pattern is a regularity in the world, in human-made design, or in abstract ideas. As such, the elements of a pattern repeat in a predictable manner. A geometric pattern is a kind of pattern formed of geometric shapes and typically repeated like a wallpaper design."

Artists can become fascinated by patterns. We see them everywhere in nature.

Psychologists look for patterns in behavior to help unravel inner conflicts and resolve neurotic angst in their patients.

Stock market investors look for patterns as well and devise a whole array of techniques in an attempt to determine if a stock price will go up or down, based on the pattern trends.

Cyberpunk author William Gibson's ninth novel, was titled Pattern Recognition. "The novel's central theme involves the examination of the human desire to detect patterns or meaning and the risks of finding patterns in meaningless data. Other themes include methods of interpretation of history, cultural familiarity with brand names, and tensions between art and commercialization." (Wikipedia)

Pattern recognition has become a pretty hot area of new research today. The journal Pattern Recognition describes it like this:

Pattern Recognition is a mature but exciting and fast developing field, which underpins developments in cognate fields such as computer vision, image processing, text and document analysis and neural networks. It is closely akin to machine learning, and also finds applications in fast emerging areas such as biometrics, bioinformatics, multimedia data analysis and most recently data science. The journal Pattern Recognition was established some 50 years ago, as the field emerged in the early years of computer science. Over the intervening years it has expanded considerably. 

* * * *
A pattern within a pattern. Captured at Art on the Planet n Superior.
Paul Simon's "Patterns" is a precisely crafted piece of poetry infused with its own patterns. When we studied it in Mr. Harris' class, we learned about various devices like assonance ("when you don't get the rhyme right" as Rita says in Educating Rita), and onomatopoeia. Note the ominous "shivering shadows" and repetition of "s" and "sh" sounds in this first stanza.

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child's uneven scrawl

Simon continues to describe the setting, amplifying his gloom with the description of this cramped space he is in. The word "impaled" is a haunting image and we sense the central character's isolation and sense of hopelessness. What he sees is the pattern of his life, with the word "puzzle" repeated from the first verse.

Up a narrow flight of stairs
In a narrow little room
As I lie upon my bed
In the early evening gloom
Impaled on my wall
My eyes can dimly see
The pattern of my life
And the puzzle that is me

In the final stanza we find his "aha" moment. This pattern began when he entered the world, and will continue unaltered until he leaves it.

From the moment of my birth
To the instant of my death
There are patterns I must follow
Just as I must breathe each breath
Like a rat in a maze
The path before me lies
And the pattern never alters
Until the rat dies

* * * *
Fractals are themselves a form of pattern within a seeming non-pattern.
The message is bleak, but is it true? Are our lives really so scripted that we can never deviate from who we appear to be?

Behaviorism was a popular philosophical view in the mid-20th century. It used science to affirm that we internally are wired to be who we are, both by genetic design and the nurturing of our early childhood. Though we're psychologically more complicated than pigeons, like pigeons we are essentially "programmed" by forces that lock us in, that we do not have a free will at all.

French attorney/philosopher/theologian Jacques Ellul wrote about these matters as well, though he approached it differently. He stated that we are enslaved more than we realize--for the reasons cited by Skinner and Freud--but that in the very center of our being have do have the ability to make choices, our basis for hope. It's just not easy due to the multiple forces, internal and external, that bear down upon us.

In an essay on the thought and writings of Ellul, James Fowler writes: Ellul's thesis is that the natural man is incapable of seeing the spiritual reality in which he is struggling (cf. I Cor. 2;14). He only sees the surface issues of social, political and economic problems, and he attempts to work and find solutions with the methods of technique, and in accord with moral standards. The world of modern society is not capable of preserving itself or of finding remedies for its spiritual situation. The more so-called "progress" man makes, the more he is aware of the inadequacy of human solutions, which all fail, one after another, and only increase the difficulties in which he lives.

The end result is the sense of futility and despair described by Paul Simon. How we respond to this emotional/psychological space has a bearing on who we become. Existentialists see this as the foundational starting point for creating meaning for our lives. We choose whom we will become. For those who find salvation in faith, it's from this place of despondency and desperation that many people reach out to, and find, God.

Zentangle pattern courtesy Esther Piszczek.
Hemingway had contempt for what many called "foxhole religion" in which soldiers only reached out to God when they were at the end of their rope. "Oh God, don't let me die and I will do anything you ask!" He no doubt saw first hand this kind of religion--may have experienced it himself--and wrote a cynical story about it in his classic In Our Time.

How we choose to live says more than all the promises we make. What we value is revealed in our choices. I disagree with the fatalists who say we are so programmed that we have no choice, no free will. On the other hand, habit can be a very harsh taskmaster. Gaining our freedom requires determination and persistence. We don't and won't drift into it if we're passive like jellyfish.

Paul Simon is a poet, and his effort to capture a feeling, a feeling most of us have experienced, is not necessarily a conclusion about the meaning of life. He captures the feeling well, however. And in other songs he captures other feelings, such as, "Life I love you, all is groovy."

Of all these things much more can be said. For the moment, let's save it for another space in time. The song may have a somewhat bitter end, but that doesn't mean our lives have to.


Corry27 said...

Good afternoon

A small correction made from my side.
The song your are mentioning in your artcile is far more older than you are assuming.


Paul Simon creadted this song already this song in the early sxities of last Century.

This is a 'raw version' from this earliest version of this song.
Paul Simon created this song in New York City #USA:

14. Paul Simon - Patterns

Pls keep in mind I am a member of Paul Simon`s Generation being 67 years old now.

During the time this song has been recorded we only had cassette-tapes for recording these song.

This is the reason why you are hearing so much of hiss.

Later on in the early sixties of rhe 20th Cwentury the duo Somin and Garfunkel split and Paul Simon went to the
'Fols Scene' in LONDON #UK

I have a song dor you he recorded on an album that was only released in 'my part of the world' as I speak in Europe.

This Paul Simon Song has been recorded on the Paul Simon album

'Paul Simon The Paul Simon Songbook'.

Paul Simon recorded this album in 1965

Paul Simon - Patterns

Pls check out for more Paul Simon Solo stuff my Facebook-account

Kind regards from Europe The Netherlands

My real name is to be seen on my Facebook-account.

Ed Newman said...

Hi Corry
Actually, in the second paragraph, second sentence of this blog post I wrote:

"At the time I was unaware it first appeared on Simon's 1965 album The Paul Simon Songbook."

In other words, though I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel, I was not aware of the previous recording and learned only later.
Thanks for underscoriing, though.
I saw Paul Simon when he came to Duluth with Bob Dylan in 1999, and have written about him a few times on my blogs.
and Here:

Thanks for the links. I nearly memorized Graceland, having listened to it so much after it came out. The video documentary of that album and Simon in South Africa was quite moving.

I too am 67, by the way.
Thanks for the comments