The Poetic Wisdom Paradox, which I abbreviate as the PWP, works as follows. A wise poet, let us say Homer, wants to convey wisdom in his poetic creation. Unlike the bohemian model of the underground poet satisfied with a tiny audience, we assume he begins with the poet’s traditional desire to sing to his people and to obtain fame’s immortality. What our PWP scenario adds is that he does not simply wish to teach the world to “sing” his poem, but to learn wisdom from it. Now wisdom is by nature difficult for most people to immediately grasp, and indeed, its most important lessons are likely to oppose what most people, let us call them the many, think is true. In Homer’s day the many agreed that the hero Achilles was most admirable, and that his imitation was the best thing about Homer’s poem. It is plain that Homer tried to teach them something by highlighting the tragedy-producing choices of Achilles, and that to some degree this teaching involves a criticism of Achilles from the perspective of wisdom(note: this is only to say that Homer can provide some wisdom on this score). So far, everything seems in place—the Greeks can admire, praise, and even musically feel the greatness of a hero better than they would have without Homer’ poem, and what is more, they might learn wisdom from it about that hero’s limitations.
And then along comes Socrates…
What Plato’s Socrates suggests is that the poet might produce far more adulation for the hero than understanding of his limitations. If so, he will actually increase his society’s cultivation of the character-type. Worse, the very reception of his poetry is heavily dependent on the many’s approval. The poet wants his audience to think about and judge a hero in a way they haven’t before, but in fact he cannot gain an audience unless he beautifully portrays just those things the people already admire in a hero.
Some Straussians might find shortcomings here, worried that I have neglected some key aspect or of Plato’s contest with the poets, or that I have reduced everything to the influence of the many.
But with rock, such reduction is justified. Even the Zombies, for example, prove unable to deliver criticism of the new 60s sexual ethic without celebrating it. Allan Bloom, in his great “Interpretive Essay” on the Republic, says Plato’s criticism of Homer and his own example resulted in poets like “Dante and Shakespeare” capable of “a new kind of poetry which leads beyond itself…and which supports to philosophic life.”(430) This tension between the sheer power of poetry and the responsibility of genuine wisdom is still sometimes maintained in our fine arts, but rock, with its overt rejection of the fine, is usually unaware of the PWP.
I thus hold that rock artists are exposed to the PWP in an amplified manner.
First, the artistic resources of the rock song or album are usually too limited to allow for the strategies a Plato, a Dante, a fine novelist, or a Mozart or a Bizet, might use to evade or mitigate the PWP.
Second, the influence of their message is far more directly subject to a raw plebiscite. Whereas aristocratic Athenian opinion probably had a strong role in “promoting” the Iliad as worthy of recitation, the Zombies’ earlier hit singles, the ones that allowed them to even record Odessey and Oracle, were hits entirely due to the adolescent many’s approval. Such popular judgment is arguably pretty reliable when we’re only trying to figure out, say, what record is better to dance to, or who sings better, but it is an unreliable judge of what songs better convey wisdom.
Third, the ironical stance toward market popularity that many rock artists adopted, the Pop Art stance, turns classic exotericism on its head: instead of providing something salutary for the masses that conceals within it the philosophy, Pop Art provides them with low pleasures the artists themselves despise or are ambivalent about. These are often made lower and cruder yet through the contempt involved, with disastrous cultural results given the majority of fans who do not get the irony.
Fourth, the rock phenomenon is not simply a musical and a lyrical one, but one that connects songs to a rock youth culture with its own set of conventions. What, for example, is the primary message of punk, as opposed to any particular punk song? A strong case can be made that it turns out to be: Be punk. Buy punk recordings and paraphernalia. Form a punk band. A postmodern conservative punk song, a Christian punk song, a be-kind-to-animals punk song, will all tend to get culturally swallowed in the larger message. Shades of Marshall McLuhan. A “Time of the Season” will be likewise digested. This problem is often underlined by a further one, a structural contradiction noticed long ago that can afflict many sorts of songs, namely, a disharmony between a song’s musical message and its lyrical one.
Considered in the light of the PWP, “Time of the Season” is an artistic failure, despite all of its subtlety. In Songbook #s 1-3, we saw that message-wise, it either means to criticize the emerging free-love ethic, or to at least to criticize undue optimism about its arrival. Either way, it initially presents itself in the guise of a free-love celebrating song, complete with arousal-imitating music. The Zombies thought in this way, they could slip their message to the very audience that needed to hear it most. And the message undoubtedly did get through to some–during various ponder-the-lyrics listening sessions circa 1968-69, a few hippie-ish types must have said said, “aha! …that’s brilliant…and I’m beginning to think they’re quite right.” But for the vast mass of us, “Time of the Season” was and is simply another iconic piece of 60s pop culture, assumed to stand for free love.
So the Zombies did not accomplish what they intended to with the song, other than proving they were very smart, or perhaps providing a fittingly dark conclusion to Odessey and Oracle, thereby making it more of a unified statement. We unfortunately do have to admit into our judgment of the song the fact that over the years it probably has helped facilitate more than a few thousand disastrous copulations, with so-many babies aborted or born out of wedlock as a result. And it has surely has inspired more than a few million lustful thoughts. Thus, no social conservative can welcome the exoteric message of “Time of the Season,” a message which pop-culturally speaking overwhelms its esoteric one. The Zombies were an outstanding pop group, an example of what rock artistry can do at its best, but they did make their own little contribution to the porn-ification of our culture, thanks to their (likely willful) ignorance of the PWP’s amplified hold over rock.