Monday, February 20, 2012

Bob Marley, me & Rastafarianism

I was younger then, more easily phased and influenced, less like myself and more a sulky misfit of my own making, over-swelling with emotion. That was then.

I can also remember a certain kind of vividness that punctuated that time in my life. I wouldn't say that it was painted with strokes as vivid or strange as those swirls of clouds in Van Gogh's Starry Starry Night. Still, it was a time when I was incredibly open to the world. 

I had this CD that I used to play all the time, a best of Bob Marley, with the bold and fitting title of "Legend". Since I have learned that those fifteen odd tracks on the album are only a fraction of what could be termed the best of Bob Marley. Still, it had me hooked, and I would lay down on my bed in my soft stupor, the album playing, washing over me.

One track stood out. Most of them were about the good things in life; having a good time, love, just being "sound", as they say in Ireland. This one track, however, had a message, political and spiritual, a mission statement, or a call to arms, of sorts.

The track is called "Get up, stand up". "Most people say that great God will come from the sky/ He'll take away everything, and make everybody feel high/ But if you knew what life was worth/ You would look for yours on earth/ Now you see the light, stand up for your rights."

This lyric particularly appealed to me. With such amazing clarity, a set of beliefs were articulated. Knowing little about Rastafarianism - Bob Marley's religion - at the time, I interpreted the lyrics as such:

Most people believe in the Christian version of the world, that God acted outside of the world in creating it. As the agency which began the universe, God could never be the universe. He was a separate agency; separate because of his perfection, in contrast to the imperfection of the world. This was perceived by Christian doctrine, by certain Greeks before that, and probably before that even. 

Whatever it was that made him a separate agency, apart from the world, that was what He was. I suspect that it is a combination of an all-too-literal interpretation of the Bible, mixed with a distinct idea of how the  relationship between text and author should play out, a relationship which haunts us to this day. 

The Bible, we are told, is the word of God, mediated by the prophets. His word is creation. He takes the place of author. Essentially, he had to separate Himself from the text in order to be the author of that text. Christianity is truly a religion of the Book, truly a religion of an author and His text. Or, at least, a certain interpretation of that relationship, where total dominion is held by the author, which is God in this case.

When Marley says, "Most people say that great God will come from the sky/ He'll take away everything, and make everybody feel high," he is highlighting this Christian belief in the separation of God from the universe, author from text. 

What can also be explicated from the lyrics is the Christian belief in salvation, in heaven, in the possibility of leaving the world behind, surviving beyond death in some sort of afterlife. The total separation of author from text (or should I say the domination of author over text), that God is separate from and in dominion over the world, which is espoused by Christianity, is the source of the need for salvation. Deeper still, it is the source of the anxiety that creates this need for salvation and creates a perception of an imperfect world. We would finally be at peace, "feel high", and this tension between author and text would finally be resolved in some vague way. This was a tension created both by the separation of God from the world and by the assumption of His dominion over the world, or the author over the text.

In a Christian afterlife, it was not so much that we would become one with God, co-author of the Book of life. This would be the logical conclusion to this religious train of thought, but one which threatens God's unique position. Instead, a great big question mark rests over the Christian version of heaven.

Marley then lays his message out plain for us. "But if you knew what life was worth, you would look for yours on earth." Here Marley points to the earth, away from a heaven, away, in the sky. He is not pointing to an earth in the Christian sense either. This is not an imperfect earth, or at least not one defined by imperfection. This is not some Rasputin-esque anti-Christianity. Rasputin chose the side of what he defined as the earthly pleasures in the Christian world view; the sinful life. Rasputin believed that one could gain immortality and magical powers through excessively binging on sin and vice. 

The funny thing is that it is within the Christian paradigm that pleasure is equated with sin. That is to say, sensations, earthly based, things of the body, are equated with sin. It can only be defined in such stringent terms if one holds that the Christian view of the universe holds true.

Instead, Marley is telling us that the earth is the place where all this is playing out, the many tensions, dualisms, possible resolutions, transcendence, spirituality, all take place on the earth, in the world, because the world is literally all there is. The text here is freed up of the need of the dominion of the author, and instead we have a degree of mystery surrounding the relationship between author and text. 

When an old woman died before a young Che Guevara, then Ernesto, he mused that she had gone into "the great mystery that surrounds us". Here, we have a world unfinished, at least in terms of what we can think about it, what can be defined. It comes to us askew, slightly. This is the mystery of the text set free from the dominion of the author, a dominion not as natural as our Christian heritage would have us believe.

This is why I have a huge amount of respect for the post-structuralists, in France and beyond, delving into language, into our world, with a resurgent sense of mystery missing from Christianity. For them, in general, the author is dethroned, the text made all the more strange and profound for it. As Derrida put it, "all is text".

Here we have an altogether more strange, hopeful, profound world view. The ultra-morality and totality of Christianity is dissipated somewhat. There is here a very real possibility for a concept of true responsibility to form, away from the certainty of a world hereafter. At least, this is what I think.

For, if we only have this known - and mysterious - world, then we will be less likely to treat it as an imperfect shadow, as an afterbirth. Here could be the basis for a long time view of a world where we genuinely attempt to solve our problems together. Because this is the only world we have.

Years after I listened to "Get up, stand up", I learned a little more about Rastafarianism. They believe that Haile Selassie I was the second coming of Christ. I was initially disappointed when I heard this overt connection to Christianity. I thought I had found in the lyrics a possible way out. Then I thought about it a bit more, coming to the conclusion that my original interpretation was correct in a sense. Rastafarianism is at its core an attempt to naturalise the extremes of Christian thought and tradition. For, if we live in the time of the second coming, and heaven is here, then we are truly living in a world of revelation, of living revelation.

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