Transfiguring historical goods: flannel and Johnny Cash

That’s right. I’m writing on a Friday evening. It is paper writing season for me.

I should be forthright about why I am actually here. Is it because I haven’t posted in a little while? No, not really. Is it because I think you might like to read what I am about to write? No, not really (although I wish I could say yes).

I am here because I am moving too slowly on my paper. I’m wondering if my thoughts might flow more freely here. Last time, I wrote one and a half blog entries in about an hour and a half (excluding edits, which I ended up fixating on). So this is a kind of experiment. I just had what I think is a killer idea that will maybe occupy about a page or so in my paper. I want to get the thought out in what feels, for me, like a low(er) stakes environment. If any of the above non-intentions happen to get met while I am here, to that I say, “Cool.” If you’re still reading, excuse footnotes, academic voice, etc. Full disclosure, this will likely fall into a category I just discovered: tl;dr (« said all of you to the majority of texts I’ve ever sent). Here goes nothing.

Before diving into Augustine’s thought more deeply, I want to discuss what a retrieval of some good from the long-forgotten past might look like. It is a kind of transfiguration. Taylor riffs on this motif in various places in Sources that rely heavily on his “expressivist” theory of language. The work of a poet, or of artists in general, or at least the idea that we and they have of their work in our own contemporary time, is of transfiguring something either from the world or from ourselves. This transfiguration will disclose a hitherto unseen, or unnoticed, or–dare we say?–nonexistent meaning.

How does a piece of art bring about such a disclosure of what had before remained undisclosed to us? Using the various tools at its disposal, whether those be the symbolic meaning of a particular shade of red or the symbolic meaning of some animal, or the symbolic meaning of anything really, it brings that meaning into a new context and, thereby, renders its meaning different. This is a common idiom in our culture: it “portrays something for us in a new light.” We might be particularly moved by a poem or a painting or a novel because it teaches us to look at the world some different way by shifting the meaning of one its parts.

Think of a trip to the thrift store. When I go to a thrift store, I will often find an item that has long gone out of fashion. An old flannel, say, that has been out of vogue in most places in the country since the late nineties; exceptions here will include Montana, because flannel never goes out of style there, and, of course, Seattle, for obvious reasons.

You catch my point. In purchasing and wearing the old flannel from the nineteen-nineties, I inevitably enact a new meaning. What does it mean to enact a new meaning? Well, even in the nineties, the flannel had long been associated with a certain aesthetic: blue-collar practicality, the hardened lower class. To be sure, these latter do not represent the true meaning of the flannel for a grungy teenager in the nineties. We might speculate that the ubiquity of the flannel shirt in the nineties represents an attempt on the part of the youth in various areas of the United States to imitate that former culture, but ultimately, the associations we have with the flannel shirt–and by this, to be clear, I mean the meaning of the flannel for us–is inflected through their appropriation of it. Their meaning was a variation on the old one. What they accomplished was to surgically remove the object from its natural habitat and to graft it, with all of its former associations, into a new one. Like the tree to which the new branch is grafted, the wearer of the flannel is different for having worn it; it really might change her or his self-understanding. Unlike grafting the branch of a tree, however, the meaning of the object itself changes in this case, as though the peachiness of the tree affected the taste of the apples from the grafted apple branch.

The same will happen if I take the flannel to the counter, pay my $.99, and wear it. What you see in my wearing the flannel is neither the grungy youth from the nineties nor, probably, the hardened blue-collar worker. Something new, whether you appreciate how I look in the flannel or what it means that I am wearing it, has been brought about by my wearing the flannel.

I am trying to illustrate a few fairly basic points: (1) implicitly, that it is not possible to retrieve original meanings, (2) that is possible to retrieve an artifact from history, and that (3) the new meaning of an artifact from history depends on (a) its old meaning and (b) its new context.

To see this more clearly, one more example serves very well. Think of cover songs. Since Youtube made it possible for any person with a computer to publish a rendition of any song (s)he pleases, these have become quite popular and quite commonplace. It is also a well-known phenomenon that sometimes the cover song will appeal to us or resonate with us more, or at least as much as, the initial composition.

To see why, we must understand the cover song the same as we understand my wearing the flannel shirt—a new meaning is brought about by the new rendition. The cover song retrieves something, by necessity from the past, and brings it into a new context: setting it to altogether new music, changing the key, increasing or decreasing the tempo, etc. If nothing else, the different timbre of the new artist’s voice will utterly remake the song.

A specific example of a cover may serve to illustrate the dramatic change in meaning. One of the more famous, popular, and highly praised covers in our own time is Johnny Cash’s rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ song, “Hurt.”

In this song, as in any cover, fields of meaning overlap–streams converge on a point. Firstly, there is the original song and what it meant coming from Nine Inch Nails. Secondly, there is Johhny Cash’s rendering. But Cash’s rendering is not as simple as new music, new tempo, new timbre. As in poetry, so in cover songs: breaking the rules only matters when the reader is confident that the poet knows the rule. Cash’s cover changes one word of the original, trading “crown of shit” for “crown of thorns.” This one change, among whatever other changes he may have made to the original, shifts the locus of meaning to Cash’s personal life. We imagine a man on a bed in an empty house with a guitar, plucking out a very sad song while looking at a picture of his deceased wife. More than that, we imagine a man who has seen and worn the crown of shit–who has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and who, by virtue of these, know what it means to alienate the people closest to him–and who has chosen something different. Whether this is a change in name or a change in wardrobe may be left a mystery. What is not left a mystery is the fact of the change in meaning–the significance of this version of the song cannot but be new and cannot but get its significance from our understanding of Cash and his life. If by nothing else, Cash utterly remakes the meaning of the song by changing one word.

Something akin to this is what we look for when we look to retrieve a good from the past. We look knowing full well that the original cannot be had, but hopeful that some new and more appropriate meaning can be shown to us in, or even brought into existence by, our enactment of the forgotten good.

Perhaps we, like Cash, can learn to trade this crown of shit for a crown of thorns.


If you’re wondering whether I wrote this whole thing for that mediocre last line: correct.

If you’re wondering where the footnotes are: you’re welcome.

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