Sunday, March 23, 2008

Mondegreen Pt. 3: Melon Calling Baby

Although there are rather sophisticated Site Meter services available for monitoring website traffic, I use only the “basic” service—in other words, the free one. Other than page views, I don’t pay any attention to the various sorts of traffic data available to me—this isn’t a commercial site, after all, so such information is not critically important to me. The other day, however, I decided to take a look at the data as listed in the category “By Referrals,” information on how one’s particular website is found by a particular viewer other than by directly entering the specific URL (that is, data on re-directed traffic).

I was mildly astonished to discover how many individuals had been directed to my blogspot as a consequence of searching the key words, “Betty and the Jets lyrics.” The reason for this is that a few blog entries ago I wrote a blog entry on the mondegreen, “Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-Blowin’ in the Wind,” followed a few days later by a second entry, a follow-up that I’d titled, as a jape, “Betty and the Jets.”

After learning how many page visits my blogspot had received as a consequence of individuals searching for the lyrics to “Betty and the Jets,” I felt a tad bit guilty: wasn’t I perpetuating what is clearly a rather widespread misunderstanding, adding to, rather than clarifying, the essential homophonic ambiguity regarding “Bennie and the Jets” by disseminating the deformed, mondegreen version, “Betty and the Jets”? On the other hand, I decided, perhaps having read about the mondegreen, the searchers might, in a sort of roundabout way, figure out the song’s actual title, and hence find the lyrics they had set out to find.

In my earlier “Betty and the Jets” blog entry, I’d suggested the existence of the mondegreen, at least insofar as lyrics are concerned, is a consequence of a message being deformed once it is subject to electronic transmission, a technology which emphasizes the received nature of messages.

But perhaps on this Easter Sunday, we might want to consider an entirely different theoretical issue, that of the (invisible) effect of homophonic ambiguity (the mondegreen) on the transmission of messages that were originally made within a largely oral (that is, largely illiterate) culture, and consider whether the transmission of Biblical texts might also have been subject to deformation by the mondegreen. I’m sure such a possibility has given many a Biblical scholar a sleepless night or two (or three). I know it has been exploited for comic effect: think, for instance, of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the line, "Blessed are the cheesemakers," although this is an example of an intentional deformation, not an unintentional one, as is the mondegreen. However, the point is clear enough.

There is certainly textual evidence that serves as a sort of “smoking gun” for the existence of the Biblical mondegreen, as Frank Kermode has astutely pointed out in his fascinating book, The Genesis of Secrecy. In his discussion of figura (i.e., typology, a method of Biblical interpretation premised on the assumption that events in the New Testament are “pre-figured,” or anticipated, by textual material found in the Old Testament), Kermode discusses the evidence that Old Testament texts were sometimes “christologized,” that is, “rewritten in a more convenient form.” He writes:

A famous instance is the Christian version of Psalms 96:10, as found in Justin, where the words “from the tree” are added to the original text, “The Lord has reigned.” (107)

The footnote Kermode adds to this passage is worth looking at in detail:

I have heard this example contested on the ground that we cannot be sure there were not Septuagint manuscripts that included the words apo tou xulou (“from the tree”). An explanation of how such an intrusive reading might have come about is this: a translator, coming across the Hebrew word selah, which, though it is not infrequent in the Psalms, has no certain meaning, transliterated it into Greek xela or even xyla, so that the text read “The Lord shall reign xyla.” The addition was modified to xylou, and somebody then made sense of it by inserting apo and reading apo xulou, “from the tree”—thus “manufacturing a prophecy of the crucifixion which was to be welcomed by Christian exegetes” . . . . (158-59).

In other words, the actual text was modified by the exegete’s desire for the New Testament to fulfill the promises of the Old Testament. The analogy, of course, is that one hears what one wants to hear. True, Kermode’s specific example is one of scribal corruption of the orthographic sort (orthography concerns spelling, but also the issue of how sounds are expressed by written symbols), but it is only one of the many kinds of ambiguity in language. Some words have one sound but multiple spellings, with different meanings for each spelling (e.g., main/mane), homophones in the strict sense. But there are words that have one spelling but have multiple meanings (e.g., “bank,” as in river bank, but also “bank” as in financial institution) called polysemous words. Obviously, both kinds of words can confuse listeners. In Kermode’s example, the argument for the addition of “from the tree” is based on the assumption that some ancient redactor, confused by the Hebrew word selah, decided it was a pseudohomophone (for a contemporary example, for instance, think of the use of “luv” for “love”) and therefore made an orthographic error, substituting either the Greek word xela or possibly xyla. A subsequent redactor then modified xela/xyla to xylou, creating yet another confusion, one subsequently resolved by yet another redactor, the later one adding of the word apo and reading apo xulou, “from the tree.” Note the progressive deformation caused by the original substitution.

There’s a famous example in the history of literary criticism of a scholarly article having been written based on a text that had an error of the orthographic kind. The literary scholar in question (nameless) wrote a long, involved interpretation of the profound religious and metaphysical implications of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, mistakenly basing his interpretation on a textual source in which the phrase, “soiled fish of the sea” was, unknown to the critic, a corruption of the phrase found in the first and early editions of the novel, “coiled fish of the sea.” (“Soiled fish” vaguely suggesting of the idea of original sin, while “coiled fish” suggesting the meaning of the Old English “wyrm,” a serpent or dragon, and hence the Devil.) How easily some later copy-editor could have made such a mistake; how seemingly minor such a simple substitution of the glyph “s” for the glyph “c”—but how astonishing the interpretive flight made possible by such a seemingly insignificant error!

I’ve made the same sort of mistake myself. I am one of those listeners who for years thought Bob Dylan sang, in “Tangled Up in Blue,”

Split up on the docks that night

rather than the lyric as published on his website:

Split up on a dark sad night

Obviously, my interpretation of the song had always rested, in part, on mishearing this particular lyric. I still prefer my version over the actual lyric (the role of desire in hearing). That the song’s narrator and the unnamed woman “split up on the docks that night” always had a wonderfully cinematic, mysterious quality to it: a foggy, dockside scene in chiaroscuro, two figures in silhouette, illuminated from behind by a single bulb beneath a metal canopy overhanging the entrance to some small, dilapidated shack, with the small squibs of light marking the portholes of the docked ships behind them. I thought it was a suitably romantic image for such a somber parting. How non-cinematic is the actual lyric (to me), but the point is how one’s interpretation rests on how one has decoded the message.

And just think, all this time, you wanted to be a rockin’ polestar? Or how about a rockin' pollster? Examine not the boat in your neighbor's eye, remove the bead from your own!

1 comment:

Daniel said...

haha u sir have done just that...helped me find the true name of that song...thankyou