This Anthro Life

Rosanne Cash, the “Fireworks of Origin”, and the Paradox of Being Human

After hearing an interview with Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, on NPR yesterday about her new album I was inspired to explore more of her work and came across a New York Times opinion piece she wrote in 2008. In the piece she points out her annoyance when an interviewer asks her whether she writes the lyrics or music first for a new song and also to the question of how difficult it must be to reveal so much of oneself through song. Cash points out that music, as a form or art, isn’t subject to fact-checking the same way, say, a news story is. When it comes to writing songs that deal with her childhood or something deeply personal, she’s the only one who who draws from her own experience. And of course, the same event may (and probably does) have different interpretations to other people. She further says that often times lyrics will change in a song so that part of the story is factual event while another part simply works well to move the story forward or syllabically matches the rhymatic cadence. It’s about how to tell the best story and create the most moving composition.

As anthropologists, it is our job to take seriously what our informants and research partners say about their lives, how they describe their experience, events, feelings, and interpretations. While part of our job as social scientists is to distill and translate chunks of information into sharable stories, we don’t “fact-check the soul”, as Cash titles her piece. In this way, I think we have the ability and responsibility to leave in the realm of mystery the creative capacity of humans – to always leave space for inspiration and awe – for our informants and ourselves. There is a mystery in the plurality of the human condition, writes Hannah Arendt. What she is getting at here is the paradox of being human is that we are at once singular individuals with personal identities that we hold to be ourselves and simultaneously are defined and created through our social relations with others. This shared space between ourselves and others is still mysterious. We cannot be reduced to merely neurology or sociology any more than we can be reduced as the sum parts of our history or our potentiality for future action. Cash draws the line through songwriting and differentiates between science and art here. Cash helps explicate science as in the business of fact, of empirically verifiable world views, whereas, she contrasts, art plays with facts, and creates new ones alongside fiction, challenges present ones, and opens up different possibilities and emotive capacities. This isn’t to denigrate or laud science versus art, for both fill important needs in human lives – and help us define ourselves as human. Cash’s point here, however, is that we ought to pay attention to inspiration in our lives – whether that comes from finding, crafting and telling facts through science or artistic endeavor (or somewhere in between like anthropology) – and that how we think about inspiration changes throughout our lives. And for me, this points towards the mystery of the plurality of the human condition.

As a songwriter for over 25 years, Cash recounts her changing perspective over the course of a long engagement with a craft. As a younger songwriter, she would have claimed that the initial inspiration for a song – either lyric or music – was “emotionally superior” to the wrestling with an idea – from fact and fiction – that becomes a song. That is, the initial spark, the ah-ha moment, the touching of a live wire, was more emotionally satisfying than what comes next. But, she says, “as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration.” Cash puts her finger on a question between what first draws us in versus what attention we give something, or someone, to cultivate that relationship. To me, she is hitting on an important human capacity for sustained and quality attention to ourselves and our relations with others – something perhaps threatened in an (seemingly unending) era of smartphones, constant social media, chronic overproduction of formal education and under valuing of creativity. Or, the anthropologist me in begs me to first question what quality attention do we give and where, and why and how do we sustain it?

Reflecting on her changing views of the creative process, and useful to think about regarding attention, Cash says, “I have found that continual referral back to the original “feeling tone” of the inspiration, the constant re-touching of that hum and cry, more important than the fireworks of its origin. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting, either lyrically or emotionally.” Social media – the instant message, Facebook post, and tweet, for example are based, it seems to me, on this same firework of origin, of impulse or inspiration. I don’t think it’s too far a metaphor to think of the jolt of excitement we get at the simultaneous lighting up of our phone screen, vibration, and ringtone as perhaps a little firework – the origin and continuation of online connection. But how does this help us think about the paradox of long term engagement with a craft in an era of fireworks? Of being what Cash calls steady? I suppose another way to ask this question from the view of social media is what role do these little fireworks play in our fluctuation between the emotions of inspiration and a long-term steady engagement with something?

Drawing on Thornton Wilder, Cash points out “It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.” In this way, through slow and steady engagement with something we are able to come to see the larger landscape around us and of which we are a part. We are part of the landscape, but we are not the landscape. Initial glances, first emotions are inspired through the firework of newness, but it is the re-touching of the hum and cry and the tone of inspiration that sustains our connections and begs our attention. Fireworks are instants, exciting, illuminating, loud; but they are disconnected. What Cash is getting at here is this hum and cry, the initial tone that inspired the setting, that helped give context to the landscape – this is what is worth wrestling with, with engaging, with learning to be steady in. These are questions of how to define oneself, of asking what you want to hold on to in life. Of what really matters. Perhaps of the mystery of our singular and collective selves.

Cash muses “Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid, and sometimes more potent.” And perhaps this is the real takeaway. As I’ve written before, anthropology’s strength comes in its patient wisdom of steady engagement with a craft (and anthropology itself is indeed a craft). We cultivate and sustain relationships with the people amongst whom we work for years, drawing on both fireworks of inspiration and wrestling with the hum and cry, with the tone, that follows us through the relationship. But the point, of course, is larger than one discipline. This is what each of us does in our daily lives and over the course of a lifetime since we are defined not only by our personal thoughts of ourselves but also through our engagements with others. Cash reminds us to pay attention to both what inspires us, but also what the tone of that inspiration was – love, fear, loneliness, hope, and to allow ourselves to change. This gets us back to the mystery. We have a ‘solid’ sense of who we are as individuals, but we can and do change over a life time. And as Cash points out, often times things that seem opposite to how we define ourselves at one point may come to be the defining factor at another.

She makes this point by recognizing the particular importance of sustaining a craft for ourselves – whether that be a hobby like rock climbing, painting, or music or in cultivating relationships with others, or in whatever you find enjoyable and inspirational. To look at the landscape around us, not simply as instances of a river, but to recognize that our perspective changes, both of where we are in life and how we interpret ourselves and others. We always draw from a cache (pardon the pun) of fact and fiction to make ourselves, and our notions of self are always in negotiation between fireworks and sustain, between our understandings of who we are and how we treat others in relation to how others see and treat us. What Cash does here is to remind us that the fireworks of inspiration are only one, though important, part of this experience. I, along with Cash, find inspiration in thinking about the tone of that inspiration – connectivity, love, loneliness, whatever, to better understand how we come to relate and emote with others and to think more deeply about that mysterious plurality at the heart of being human.

– Adam

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