The Mission – Butterfly on a Wheel

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It’s cynical yet romantic, with idioms and images that sound clichéd, but presented in such combinations that the song turns into a kind of kaleidoscope, fascinating while ordinary, a collection of contradictions.

The title comes from an Alexander Pope poem and refers to the use of excessive force to achieve something minor. The “wheel” means Catherine wheel, a torture device meant for breaking bones. Calling love something that breaks the wings of a butterfly sounds cynical, but feels somehow familiar to anyone who’s ever been disappointed. If one doesn’t think of the wheel as a torture device I guess it might be possible to see it as something positive too: love is a powerful emotion that smashes through our fears as if they were always very fragile. It is the knife that cuts through our preconceptions, the expectations of rejection, indifference and unkindness, so common in this world that genuine affection and caring is surprising, always transformative.

A butterfly on a torture device, the trembling, shivering human soul. Going through heartbreak and disappointment one might feel that love is something to be avoided because it made us vulnerable. But there’s another way to see it. Love only reveals the vulnerability that was always there. Two contrasting viewpoints: love is blindness, or love is clarity. Perception is always subjective, our theories of reality coloured by our emotions, unconscious fears and desires turning into rationalized arguments. I cannot say which would be correct, but I do believe life is more pleasant, social situations more stimulating and fulfilling, if you see love as clarity, something that reveals the true nature of things. Saying that no true essence exists may provide intellectual satisfaction, yet in ordinary life we always recourse to something more emotional to take the place of truth.

Also this idiom: “All is fair in love and war”. It sounds like a recipe for abusive relationships, stalking and harassing. Like many old sayings, from today’s perspective it seems completely wrong, and believing in its truthfulness only leads to sorrow. People have wildly different concepts of love, sometimes so different that they seem complete opposites. It may be gentleness and acceptance, but also obsessiveness relabeled as passion. And when the different conceptions clash, what was an expectation of safety in vulnerability turns into torture.

Regardless of the approach, love is something that makes us feel complete, or at least it’s a vision that promises completeness. It does not have to be a romantic partner who triggers it. Love is trust that makes us transcend our ego and direct our gentleness toward the world, whether it is toward humanity, our children, or something more abstract and vague.

All these colourful encounters, the small touches, the eternal springtime of a trusting disposition. I see your beauty in the grey light of an ordinary cloudy day. I see my own significance in a universe where a human being is a speck of dust, I reach out toward you. We smile. We greet. We thank each other for small favours, and for existing, for seeing and hearing. The small talk, the visit from a neighbour, the completeness of existence each moment despite the tendency to see imperfection, things to be corrected, silence to be achieved. And the happy greeting, the acknowledgement that this is the person you share your life with, choosing him or her time after time. Love, the healing balm, the attentiveness, the presence, the tenderness. If only we could always see each other like this.

Françoise Hardy – Sí, mi caballero

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Hardy’s 1971 album La Question wasn’t well received at the time, but now it stands as a landmark of breathy sensuality and poetic imagery. The singing style has become so much more popular now that it’s easy to think it sounds affected. Yet even now the quiet melancholy of this love song sounds somewhat mysterious.

Why the Spanish “caballero” in a song otherwise in French? It’s derived from the word for “horse” and means gentleman, a knight, and later in Mexico came to mean a cowboy. But it meant rather the wealthier cattle owners than the labourers who were called vaqueros. So if I’ve got it correctly, the title could be translated as “Yes, my gentleman” or “Yes, my cowboy”, but both are somewhat misleading.

More generally the song is for a gentleman who is still in touch with the earth and nature, not someone who is sipping champagne in a yacht. While the image of a cowboy is largely positive in books and movies, in English (or French) the connotation of gentlemanly conduct isn’t as strong as it would be with the Spanish word, though there’s nothing inherently incompatible either.

I’m a bit uncertain whether the Spanish part says “Si” or “Sí,” if or yes. It may call for a deconstructive reading, but I think it’s safe to assume that affirmation is meant instead of conditionality when there’s no consequence clause. Thus:

“Sí, mi caballero, j’aimerais bien être
La blanche poussière qui suit ton troupeau”

“Yes, my cowboy, I’d love to be the white dust that follows your herd”. Later there are clear if-clauses in French, which adds to the interplay of meanings: is the singer accepting her lover’s assertions or coming up with conditions of her own? At the very least when she follows up with “If I were dust, I would follow you. If I were a blade of grass, you would carry me,” she’s making them her own, regardless of the origin.

I’m reminded of Hegel’s dialectic of the master and the slave. Who is in control when the act of surrendering starts to define the relationship as a whole? The yearning is defined by the narrator, and yet she sings in Spanish “yes, my cowboy” as if it’s a series of answers to questions we cannot hear, an affirmation of the gentleman’s wishes and expectations. But we simply do not know whether it’s an emphatic “Yes! I mean it!” or an affirmation, which further adds to the mystery of the song.

“Il me suffirait sur tes lèvres sèches, d’être goutte d’eau.”
“It would be enough for me to be a drop of water on your dry lips.”

It is a song about the totality of love, the surrendering that makes us more than what we are. It may sound like giving up one’s own will, becoming an inanimate object, content in merely serving one’s lover. But it is not all. Embracing the world, becoming every object, the dust, a blade of grass, a drop of water. I am everywhere and nowhere at once. In love I transcend my ego. The neediness seems overwhelming, so much so that it blurs the concepts of surrendering and demanding.

It makes the act of surrendering even more complete if you think that even these images of dust and grass were provided by the lover. But therein lies also the escape. You cannot control the dust, nor the drops of water. Love is given freely, and it cannot be grabbed by force.

Liberation. I forget myself, thereby I am free of the fetters of my past, of my needs, of the politics that ruled me, the body that demanded attention. I am the falling feather, the breath on your skin, I am the pleasure that I give, feeling this immense desire to share, to be the shiver that travels through the world, through my body and yours as we sigh in unison.

In the act of sharing I lose myself, and yet gain much more: the pleasure of swaying in the wind, the pleasure of becoming always something else, the leaves, the stars. In comparison, being a cowboy seems terribly restrictive. Immanence is imprisonment. Love, freedom, surrendering, transcendence. Let us be everything for each other, in each other, in this embrace, the dust and the cowboy, the lips and the water. This wonder, this unity, this independence in belonging, this permanence in becoming.

Marlena Shaw – You

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Marlena Shaw’s 1975 album ‘Who Is This Bitch, Anyway?’ sounds defiant, and that’s how she looks in the cover picture as well. But the tracks themselves are surprisingly soft, soulful love songs, albeit with some that celebrate the sexual union and desire in a way that perhaps were pretty bold at the time. But in these songs there’s always gentleness and the idea that sex is a part of a greater feeling of unity with the loved one.

“You” touches on a spiritual dimension. Here love isn’t described with images of the sacred like in some other songs I’ve explored, but rather God is thanked for the existence of this love, this one person who was proved to be steadfast and faithful in a world where it may be hard to trust others.

It’s a feeling I can recognize even as an atheist: when after years of being on your own you find someone special, someone who returns your feelings, there’s a deep sense of gratitude without direction. There’s gratitude toward your lover, of course, for being the way she is, but also something greater, a recognition that we are all somewhat helpless. We try to choose who we are, try to be our best selves, and yet there is always so much that just happens, emotions that aren’t controlled, thoughts that emerge out of the complex interplay between unconscious impulses and sudden encounters. The more aware you are of how you can’t control exactly who you become, the more miraculous it seems that you find someone compatible, someone with similar dreams, the same wish to build a life together. Even if it is what most people want, it feels like this is something unique. Partly it may be the hormones, and partly the realization of how many ways there are to screw things up, and how precious it is to hold on to the same dream, even just for a moment.

And that brings us to the realm of the divine: this feeling that mutual love seems so unlikely in this world that it starts to seem like a miracle. And also the gratitude, discovering something so great that it feels like an enormous gift. We search for an intention, a purpose, and find it in the subtle acts of tenderness, the fleeting sensual pleasures, the overwhelming trust for the present and the future, and sometimes even the past is transformed: the wounds of yesterday no longer matter when you are intimate with someone. But it is not a gift in the sense of something being given away or sacrificed. It is endless sharing, this willingness to understand and be understood, to open up at the risk of being hurt, seeing that the trust was not misplaced, and discovering in that trust our real selves, free to explore the myriad possibilities our feelings and thoughts may take. Such an overwhelming feeling inevitably inspires gratitude without direction, because it doesn’t seem like there’s one choice behind it. We choose to be with each other every moment, through each caress and each conflict. Sometimes there is perhaps one moment that is remembered as more significant than others, when we realized that this is what we want, but love isn’t reduced to that one decision, that one “I do.”

The plurality of moments makes it complex, and the strength of feeling, the unity of desire, makes it simple. You want to thank the universe, or God, your lover, the wind and the woods, for everything seems more meaningful now, everything has led to this moment when you discover yourself and your capability to reach out, to be unselfish, to think of the greater good. You and I, and this cosmos, this order in chaos, the emotion that makes everything right again.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Until It’s Time for You to Go

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A song of impermanence more sweet than bitter, a plea to keep loving as long as possible, realizing that coming from different worlds may be an insurmountable obstacle, but at least for a while it is possible to stand on that obstacle together, see what the world looks like on the top. To love, to stay together, to make a choice to try to make it work until it’s impossible.

The future doesn’t exist, and the past seems like a dream. Being infatuated both the future and the past are usually transformed. What used to be the main stumbling blocks in life suddenly is insubstantial, utterly changed. The power of bad memories disappears. Love is blind not only because we disregard the flaws or warning signs in each other, but also because we become blind to our own wounds. But such blindness can just as well be described as a moment of clarity: whatever is in the past can be left behind, and the only thing making past experiences powerful is how we keep clinging to them in the present. It’s all in the mind, these diaphanous thoughts and feelings through which we can see the light of the moon, a new infatuation that beckons us to cast away the gauze. “Don’t ask why / Don’t ask how”; these are the question related to the past. The answers would be explanations that would situate the attraction in a continuum of memories. But it is not necessary. Even the future is not necessary, only that we choose to love each other here and now.

And yet: “don’t ask forever”. There is a recognition that the future still exists, we must keep living on, and that there’s a limit to how long we can be together. The third verse is somewhat ambiguous, since you can interpret it to mean that the relationship is already ending. But it’s not a terrible stretch to hear it as a plea to stay in the moment, retaining this feeling, no matter when the ending comes. All we know is that the end exists, whether it is the death of feelings tomorrow or the death of a partner decades in the future.

What about this: “This love of mine had no beginning / it has no end”? It’s sometimes said as a joke that love does not end, only the object changes. The rather dark humour comes from the fact that usually it’s not love that has such an unchanging quality. Instead, it’s the need to be accepted. And people who are most damaged may hold on to that need as if it was something noble, jumping from one relationship to another in succession.

However, there is a truer meaning to this thought. It is possible to find in oneself love that persists, the feeling of happiness and joy in one’s own existence, gentleness toward oneself, acceptance of one’s flaws, rejoicing in simply being in the world, whatever we may encounter. That kind of love is strength instead of weakness, and once discovered, it does not have to end. It does not need to seek a new object of admiration because the world is wonderful enough to provide happiness. And it also means that if there would come a time for the loved one to go, however that happens, we are able to accept it. There is joy in the world, and joy in being able to share it.

Love remains a guiding feeling, a principle that brings colours into the world. Let us be good and gentle with each other, even if everything is impermanent. Let us travel through the shadows hand in hand, find significance in each other. Let us stay here, trusting in each other, making the choice to look one another in the eyes, truthfully, believing in good intentions. There are always endings, but they are not here yet, while there’s still time to smile, to touch, to keep on loving right now until all the smiles have faded, touches are no longer felt, and the now has disappeared into the murky waters of history, never to return.