So I’m writing this memoir which is about emigration but it’s also a critical book about aesthetics and it’s also about the body, especially the body under duress, coming apart, being tortured, and the aesthetics and erotics of such images.
My recent writing about Thåström and Imperiet obviously comes out of my writing of this memoir. And I’m going to be even more embarrassing today and write about one of my favorite songs from childhood, Mikael Wiehe’s “The Girl and the Raven” (1981).
I sat the other day and read my newspaper
a day like so many before.
And I thought about all the dreams I’ve dreamt
that have all ended one after the other.
Then I saw an image of a girl
with a bullet-wounded raven in her arms
she runs through the forest
as fast as she can
She runs with fluttering locks of hair
she runs on scrawny (“taniga”) legs
and she begs and pleads and she hopes and believes
that it’s not too late
The girls is so small and her hair is so light
and her cheeks are so flickering red
the raven is clumsy and cawing (“kraxande”) black
and in a moment it will be totally dead
But the girl she runs for life
with a bullet-wounded raven in her hands
she runs toward safety and warmth
for that which is true and good
and she runs with twinkling (“tindrande”) eyes
she runs on scrawny (“taniga”) legs
because she knows it’s true, what daddy has said,
if there’s life it’s never too late
And I started to tremble in agony (“vånda”) and misery
in shock in fear and horror
because I knew that it was clear and obvious
that it was an image of myself that I had seen
For my hope is a bullet-wounded raven
and I am a running child
who thinks there’s somebody who can help me
who thinks there’s somebody with an answer
And I run with a pounding heart
I run on scrawny legs
and I beg and plead, though I really know
that it’s already all too late
That’s a quick translation of the song. I should say that this song is incredibly, incredibly famous. Wiehe is something like a representative of 1970s left-wingism in Swedish pop culture; he’s always been very committed to Socialism and he’s always sung about Nicaragua etc.
Anyway, you may notice his strong southern accent. He’s actually from the same province as I am – Skåne. And in fact my dad knew him in the 60s and 70s. I remember being about 7 or 8 and hearing him sing this song at a party in rural Skåne, around the same time when the record came out and my parents played it constantly. So part of what I’m thinking in my memoir is how confused my memory is of this very synthy version and then the very “authentic” version of hearing him play it on acoustic guitar at a party (at the same party I apparently beat up a famous artist’s kid and this was very humiliating for my parents since it was a lefty, artsy kind of party…). But the hokey synth is very important to this chapter of the memoir (it also picks up when I first heard Yazoo a year or two later): the paradoxical combination of artificiality and viscerality in art.
But more important, the lyrics really struck me as a child. On one hand there was the language: very odd words like “taniga” and tindrande (accentuated by his skånsk dialect); not to mention “kraxande svart”, the verb “kraxande” (“cawing”) modifies “black”; it’s “cawing black”, synesthesiastically bringing blackness and sound of cawing together into a kind of blurr.
It’s this blurriness I’m interested in. How in my mind as a child, there was a violence in this blur. Sure, I imagined blood and guts leaking on the girl, but this “cawing black”-ness, this blurriness is violent in itself.
Joyelle just read me a totally brilliant poem she wrote today about a lot of heads and their headgears and the metaphors and the speed with which she reads created a similar effect of the violence of blurriness. Another example would be all those Francis Bacon paintings where the blurring seems to be a kind of violence – both against the bodies depicted and from inside the bodies. In that way, quite a bit like Johan Jönson’s assassination fantasies, where Reinfeldt is both shot and “kind of” explodes.
In difference to the blurry raven, the girl is a kitsch girl from Swedish folk mythology: blonde, innocent, running through the forest (obviously Aase Berg’s “With Deer” poems are in conversation with this girl as well, and, yes, I’ll be making that connection in a future post and in the book), running to “daddy.”
But I’m surprised upon replaying this song at how much of it is explication of the dream. In my memory it’s all about the violently bleeding raven. That synesthesic image is the song for me, the rest it now strikes me is trying to make sense of this visceral, blurry mess of the bleeding raven.
Wiehe tries to impose this sentimental meaning on the image: it’s really him carrying “hope” (gag!). In my memory, the girl is carrying the raven to the speaker of the song, to Wiehe, who is daddy; but in some way the speaker is also the “raven”. She’s carrying a blurry, bleeding male body through the woods.
But the speaker does also become the girl. Wiehe tries to make sense of the blur by claiming to be “the child,” – although he may not be able to call himself a “girl” he does in fact make that cross-gender connection. It seems gender and agency moves between singer, girl and bleeding raven. They seem connected by a system that makes them interchangeable, a violence that makes animals human and men girls. It’s a violent system, but it’s also strangely erotic.
I am reminded of WJT Mitchell’s words about “the image”:
“What does seem to remain constant across the cycles of media innovation and obsolescence is the problem of the image. The deeply ambivalent relationship between human beings and the images they create seems to flare up into crisis at moments of technical innovation, when a new medium makes possible new kinds of images, often more lifelike and persuasive than ever before, and seemingly more volatile and virulent, as if images were dangerous microbes that could infect the minds of their consumers. This may be why the default position of image theorists and media analysts is that of the idol-smashing prophet warning against Phillistines – the exemplary ancient idolaters, since reincarnated in modern kitsch and mass culture. The same critic will, however, typically be engaged in elevating certain kinds of images in selected types of media to the status of art. Aesthetic status is often credited with a redeeming effect on the degraded currency of images, as if the image had somehow been purified of commercial or ideological contamination by its remediation within certain approved media frameworks (typically art galleries, museums, and prestigious collections). Even a nakedly commercial image from mass culture can be redeemed in this way, as the silk screens of Andy Warhol demonstrate.”
This is where the spooky synthesizer sounds, the tortured Scanian accent of Wiehe and the song about a dream that has to be so overdetermined come together. Wiehe and his old-left paradigm of suspicion of images and media is merged with the violence of the media, and the seductive, powerful forces of Art.
Afterwords: This song also reminds me of this one cartoon show that was on Swedish children’s TV around this time. It was a midieval drama about a Swedish village that was being infected by the plague, and there was some pre-marital sex that ended badly, but the thing I remember the most was that a raven landed on a house roof and someone said that it was an omen, that the people who lived in that house would soon die. Well that but maybe most of all the bodies – pale, sweaty, cold and, in the sick cases, blotchy. And that in turn reminds me of some French TV drama my mom watched. It starts out with a courtesan dying from some kind of plague and she had all these boils and stuff: I thought she had yellow diamonds encrusted in her skin, but my mom clarified for me that it was pus and she was dying.