Monday, April 6, 2015

On Shaggy's polite disagreement with Robert Frost on the subject of walls

I've been using my spare time to contemplate things that need contemplating. To view the world with a benevolent but inquiring eye. To draw attention to the relationships between the seemingly disparate that make our physical world as much a web as the hypertexted one. And this purveyor of connections in me is frankly astonished that no one else seems to have noticed yet that Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" is a laid-back critique of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall."

How so, you ask? Well, as a crude summary, Frost seems to view walls with ambivalence, questioning why we build them at every opportunity. Shaggy, on the other hand, sees walls as entirely necessary, only asking why we end up subverting them so often.

Frost's poem begins with: "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall."

And on this, both Shaggy and the American poet are in agreement. Where Frost apportions blame between the physical actions of nature and humans, Shaggy sees the difficulties walls face in fulfilling their purpose as the result of a flaw deep within human nature. In his universe, we build excellent walls and where they need holes in them to allow at least a chosen few through, we place doors with tamper-proof locks. But the trouble is, we also give away spare keys willy-nilly, negating the whole point.

Frost sets the scene by painting an idyllic country scene: pine trees, springtime, rabbits, boulders, apple orchards, cows, gentle exertions in the sun, etc. Shaggy follows the same structure and begins by describing a typical domestic scene that we're all familiar with: "We were both butt-naked, banging on the bathroom floor." Notice how he seems to be deliberately paying homage to Frost's style, almost as if to say apologetically that while he has to criticise some of the ideas in "Mending Wall," he still finds Frost a peerless genius whom he admires far more than he disagrees with.

xxx

To skip a bit, brother (or sister), the protagonist of Frost's poem finds himself face-to-face with his neighbour at a place where the wall between their properties is broken. Similarly, the protagonist of Shaggy's song finds himself face-to-monitor with a neighbour substitute, whom he approaches for advice after his girlfriend catches him at the above-mentioned banging on the bathroom floor. She was not one of the two parties directly involved in that activity but is able to witness it first-hand due to the fact that she had a spare key given to her by the protagonist in a classic brain-fade moment.

Frost has his protagonist question the neighbour on why the wall is there:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down!"

Shaggy, though, expresses disagreement with Frost by having his protagonist questioned by his neighbour on why his walls were scuppered:

How you can grant the woman access to your villa
Trespasser and a witness while you cling to your pillow
You better watch your back before she turn into a killer
Best for you and the situation not to call the beaner

The difference in perspective and tone is subtle, but it's there plain as day once you know what to look for.

xxx

Frost ends his poem on a wistful note, lamenting the thoughtlessness with which his neighbour rebuilds the wall. The consequences of his actions are only hinted at - and they're more spiritual than physical anyway:

I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

Shaggy also ends his song on a lament, but focusses instead on the protagonist's thoughtlessness in not keeping his walls in order. That extra key should never have been given to his girlfriend, and failing that, he should've at least remembered to latch the bathroom door:

How could I forget that I had
Given her an extra key
All this time she was standing there
She never took her eyes off me

And perhaps in a nod to the more material times we live in, he highlights the very physical consequences: "But if she pack a gun you know you better run fast."

xxx

There you go. The scoop on how Shaggy read and mostly agreed with Frost's philosophising on why we oh-so-fervently believe in the things we do, without ever actually evaluating their effects observationally, much less think about whom we're likely causing offence to, and what price we may have to pay for said offences. He just happened to disagree on one thing: the topic of walls, the chief metaphor that Frost used to convey his ideas.

And so he wrote a song. If only the rest of us could be so entertaining in our critiques.