I say be very very careful when judging and joining and analyzing anything that calls itself political action or demonstration or protest. I’m not advocating being intellectual and passive: “Please pass me another of those delicious stuffed mushroom caps while I lecture on the futility of political action.” I’m advocating trying to be careful to know just what we are doing in the moment of doing it. I’ve been intellectually and passively sneering at Occupy Wall Street for the same reasons other sneerers are sneering: the drum circles and the healthy food and the tattoos, the hazy definitions of bank and corporation, and all the hugging. I sneer, but before all the drumming and tents and vegan snacks, I saw the world divided just as these people did; I see what they see, that the gulf between Have and Want is growing unbridgeable, and something’s got to be called to account for this. I sneer but people I respect are cheering them on. So I’m sneering and I’m also confused. Zuccotti Park is very much with us here in New York, and so I have to pay attention to this on a daily basis and I get tired and irritated from my own sneering and confusion.
Today an image sifted into my brain that can serve me as a key to my own irritation: it’s the image of a woman standing at a window, watching teenagers across her street who have formed something more than a gang, rather a self-sufficient enclave that will break free entirely from the world the woman has belonged to, and which no longer protects her–the world of order and authority that is perilously and entirely plausibly disintegrating. Does anyone recognize this description of Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor? Well, Lessing’s novel is astonishingly apt for this moment in time, and I recommend it, and I’m grateful my obnoxious brain relaxed its posing for a moment to release this memory to my attention.
See, we keep asking what the young people in Zuccotti Park want, but we have the answer right in front of us every day. The young people in Zuccotti Park are moment to moment enacting Gandhi’s edict, Be the change you want to see in the world, partly as children would, with naivete and fantasy. This world they have made in the park is right here and now what many of them want. The footage shows us up close their sloppy intimate happiness. They’ve got the best kind of commune, the kind that is held together by Us. V. Them camaraderie, with the World Outside cheering and jeering minute to minute. There are new Uses and new Thems to feed them every day. Held together by constant attention that strengthens their bonds to each other and their commitment to this very life they are leading now, of drumming and fellowship in the blue tents, their days transient and intense. They want exactly what they have.
And on the outside of Zuccotti Park, I don’t want what they have, and now I’m not cheering, not jeering, and not content either. I’d like to say it’s one of those historical times when centers aren’t holding, but I know that the illusion is that there are any centers at all. I can still feel the shakiness in things.
The wheel’s still in spin. Now, feeling the spinning is nothing at all like holding abstractly in one’s passive mind a general philosophy that the wheel of time is always spinning. Feeling the rotation is what happens in the space when the guards are changing.
In Changing of the Guards the singer sings himself into a battlefield of destiny, luck, heroism, sacrifice, isolation, love, survival, gods, eternity, and all of it tied to that wheel, and the wheel on fire. To be ready for the changing of the guards is not to be ready for a new order, it’s to be ready for what happens when the guards are changing: there must be a point, perhaps paradoxically hard to identify, like Schrödinger’s dead/not dead cat, when the guardbox is really empty, and the castle open to attack. This song invents that moment of the empty guardbox in a strong mind, that is, a mind that does know the difference between imagination and disorder and does not foolishly romanticize disorder. Changing of the Guards paints the landscape that grows when the guards of reason and regulation are done with their shift, and the guardhouse awaits the next sentinels to begin their shift.
Here’s Roy Liechtenstein’s painting, Masterpiece, from 1962. “Soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work,” the girl in the painting tells Brad, who’s just finished a “masterpiece” and is ready to step forth from the shadows to the marketplace. The sixteen years that open the door to Changing of the Guards, thereby letting the guards out, begins in 1962, when our hero- singer was already a little ahead of Brad in the game of getting New York to clamor for you.
“Sixteen years.” In three syllables, you can hear the life of 16 years breathed out and spent, and on that outbreath go the guards. For in the very next breath, the voice strengthens and in an instant, all the lived life of 16 years, all of it, condenses into 16 clean sharp banners snapping in the air over a field where all is already lost. There is grief and despair, the very Shepherd Himself has lost something worth grieving for, and the united symbols of those banners weren’t enough to keep men and women from being divided and losing hope.
If the guards have left him to a battle that is already lost, it’s a curious battlefield of grandeur and wonder: the Good Shepherd has joined the fray, and the men and women have wings, and we only despair and grieve for things of great value.
And so, stay tuned for part 2 in which the empty guardbox turned battlefield grows into a dangerous and mystical place, and our hero puts himself in danger after danger. Don’t say I never warned you–Street-Legal is not a record to take lightly.