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[Xmca-l] "Visions of Johanna" as Verbal Art

Larry (sorry for the long post--but I know you are a dogged reader!):

I think I mentioned, somewhere on this list, that amongst Ruqaiya Hasan’s
many contributions to cultural historical thinking and theorizing was her
work on verbal art. As it happens, there is a major event going on here in
Sydney in memory of Ruqaiya, and today was the workshop on Ruqaiya’s model
of verbal art as “second order semiosis”, or “patterns of patterns”.

Let me give a vulgar interpretation of her model that would probably have
made Ruqaiya scream, but which I think it consistent with using her model
in a pedagogical (not a research) context. Then I’ll apply it to two works:
Larry’s “Visions of Johanna” and a poem by the late Mahmoud Darwish,
“Nothing Pleases Me” (exhaustive texts follow this exhaustingly long post

You, Larry, must judge, although dare to hope my analysis will nudge. I
want to nudge you away from a purely subjective interpretation one way or
the other and in the direction of my preference. (Notice that I do not
consider my own preference purely subjective—let’s see if that is a piece
of arrogance I can justify!)

The first layer of Ruqaiya’s model is verbalization. In Barthes,
“verbalization” is simply represented by “signifier” and signified”, which
then becomes a signifier for a higher signified. Ruqaiya does the same
thing in a crucially more complex and more interesting way: she represents
verbalization as three layers (sound/spelling, vocabulary/grammar, and
semantics/pragmatics), and these three layers then become the verbalization
for two more layers, “symbolic articulation”, which are the patterns of
wording patterns, and “theme”, which are consistent patterns in the
symbolic articulation (patterns of [patterns of patterns]).

In the layer of verbalization, “Visions of Johanna” repeats. In fact, many
of the wordings are chosen for their soundings: the “tail” of the line is
repeated, and the head is varied, both at the level of the word (“deny
it”/”defy it” ) and the clause (“doin’ our best to deny it”, “temptin’ you
to defy it” ). This, and the ending of each verse with “Visions of
Johanna”, produce a kind of insistence, which is reinforced at the level of
vocabulary/grammar by a monotony of syntax (declarative after declarative,
all by the same person) and at the level of meaning by a monotony of
speaker (the same speaker says the same thing again and again, namely that
his current girlfriend and the lively life around them pleases him but he
misses Johanna, who had something more ethereal about her).

In the layer of verbalization “Nothing Pleases Me” varies. There is
repetition but it is not at the level of sounding/spelling; instead it is
at the level of meaning: all of the speakers are displeased with life. The
reasons for their displeasure are different: the first man is dissatisfied
with the radio and the papers and the citadels far away on the hills. The
mother has recently buried her son; the archaeologist has chosen the wrong
profession, and the soldier is afraid at the front but even more so in the
barracks. Even the bus driver seems displeased—with the passengers.

The next layer of Ruqaiya’s model is “symbolic articulation”. Concretely,
the imaginary situation, the imaginary speakers, and the imaginary problems
of the work. It’s not just this—as Jonathan Webster (City Uni Hong Kong)
pointed out today, it’s really almost any instance of “foregrounding” in an
artwork—the problem is that describing it this way doesn’t set verbal art
apart from verbal non-art, whereas describing it as an imaginary setting of
the scene, a creating of characters, and a posing of problems.

The symbolic articulation of “Visions of Johanna” is really the same as
“Gone With the Wind”. That is, the speaker is making love to one person and
dreaming of another. But what was despicable and in the end unforgiveable
in “Gone With the Wind” is presented as somehow admirable and wonderful in
“Visions of Johanna”, because of course the speaker in this case is a man.

The symbolic articulation of “Nothing Pleases Me” is, among other things,
death: death on the radio, death in the newspapers, the faraway citadels, a
mother bereaved, a soldier besieged, an archaeologist excavating bones that
are not her own or those of anyone she knows, and finally the speaker who
is weary of life and just wants to get off at the station.

The final layer of Ruqaiya’s model is “Theme”. “Theme” is title. It’s not
just title, but the title is probably the part of the verbal artwork where
you get closest to an explicit linguistic statement of the overall
“thesis”, the “motif”, the “Central Entity” and the “Orienting Event”
(Carmel Cloran) of the work as a “Rhetorical Unit” (that is, as a unit
somewhere between a clause and a whole text in size).

“Visions of Johanna” is a nominal group. The overall thesis appears to be
memories of a beautiful woman (memories of my old girlfriend) or perhaps
the ecstatic visions of a saint (visions of Teresa of Avila). The central
entity is “visions”, and “Johanna” is a rankshfted (subordinated) verbal
group, leaning us a little towards the former interpretation (because the
latter interpretation would suggest “Johanna’s Visions”). The orienting
event is a mental process—seeing, or sensing.

“Nothing Pleases Me” is a clause. The overall thesis appears to be a
negative: I love nothing, I like nothing, I am not getting what I want, and
I am not wanting what I get. The central entity is the grammatical Subject
of the clause, namely “nothing”. The orienting event is also a mental
process, namely “pleasing”.

Now, the thing that makes verbal ART into art and not just more
verbalization is this. In normal verbalization, the selection of patterns
is conventional, in the sense that there are canonical ways of realizing a
given context as wordings and a given wording as a sounding or a spelling.
With verbal art, the patterns at one level are actually able to free
themselves from convention, and create their own ways of realizing context
and their own imaginary contexts.

As David Butt (one of Ruqaiya’s students) said yesterday, the patterns of
patterns have the power to “renegotiate our contract with culture”, because
although you didn’t really agree to believe in God or ethereal love at
first sight or the citadel on the hill when you were born, verbal art has
the power to help you renegotiate each and every one of those beliefs). The
condition for doing this, however, is that patterns at one level have to
reinforce and not degrade or distract or disperse patterns at another.

With “Visions of Johanna” we have lots of patterns at the level of sounding
that make little sense at the level of wording (Is “it” the same in “deny
it” as in “defy it”?). We have patterns at the level of wording that rather
contradict what the poet is trying to say at the level of meaning (for
example, we do not get a single “Vision of Johanna” although we are told
that they have conquered the poet’s mind and blotted out everything else;
instead, for us, Louise blots out Johanna). As with so much Bob Dylan, the
theme is simply unspoken; the theme is the speaker himself, the seer of
visions we do not see

With “Nothing Pleases Me”, the speaker is also in the theme (the “me” of
“Nothing Pleases Me”) but the patterns of sounding/spelling emphasize that
we are all differently displeased, including the reader, just as we all die
alone. And yet there is something in the end that holds us together—the
bus, the driver, and the trip to the station. Where once again we all part.

David Kellogg
Macquarie University

Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan)
in't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman's bluff with the key chain
And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the "D" train
We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it's him or them that's insane
Louise, she's all right, she's just near
She's delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna's not here
The ghost of 'lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously
He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously
And when bringing her name up
He speaks of a farewell kiss to me
He's sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all
Muttering small talk at the wall while I'm in the hall
How can I explain?
It's so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeez, I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

Nothing Pleases Me (Mahmoud Darwish)
- محمود درويش "لاشيء يعجبني"
لا شيءَ يُعْجبُني

لا شيءَ يُعْجبُني
يقول مسافرٌ في الباصِ – لا الراديو
.ولا صُحُفُ الصباح , ولا القلاعُ على التلال
/أُريد أن أبكي
,يقول السائقُ: انتظرِ الوصولَ إلى المحطَّةِ
/وابْكِ وحدك ما استطعتَ
تقول سيّدةٌ: أَنا أَيضاً. أنا لا
’شيءَ يُعْجبُني. دَلَلْتُ اُبني على قبري
/فأعْجَبَهُ ونامَ’ ولم يُوَدِّعْني
يقول الجامعيُّ: ولا أَنا ’ لا شيءَ
يعجبني. دَرَسْتُ الأركيولوجيا دون أَن
أَجِدَ الهُوِيَّةَ في الحجارة. هل أنا
/حقاً أَنا؟
ويقول جنديٌّ: أَنا أَيضاً. أَنا لا
شيءَ يُعْجبُني . أُحاصِرُ دائماً شَبَحاً
يقولُ السائقُ العصبيُّ: ها نحن
اقتربنا من محطتنا الأخيرة’ فاستعدوا
فيصرخون: نريدُ ما بَعْدَ المحطَّةِ’
أمَّا أنا فأقولُ: أنْزِلْني هنا . أنا
مثلهم لا شيء يعجبني ’ ولكني تعبتُ
.من السِّفَرْ

Nothing Pleases Me

Nothing pleases me
the traveler on the bus says—Not the radio
or the morning newspaper, nor the citadels on the hills.
I want to cry /
The driver says: Wait until you get to the station,
then cry alone all you want /
A woman says: Me too. Nothing
pleases me. I guided my son to my grave,
he liked it and slept there, without saying goodbye /
A college student says: Nor does anything
please me. I studied archaeology but didn’t
find identity in stone. Am I
really me? /
And a soldier says: Me too. Nothing
pleases me. I always besiege a ghost
besieging me /
The edgy driver says: Here we are
almost near our last stop, get ready
to get off . . . /
Then they scream: We want what’s beyond the station,
keep going!
As for myself I say: Let me off here. I am
like them, nothing pleases me, but I’m worn out
from travel.

-from "The Butterfly's Burden", translated by Fady Joudah (translation
copyright © 2007 Copper Canyon Press)