Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

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