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The Recursive Self
June 3, 2008 - 8:19am


As I said a few days ago, my acquaintance Crazy Larry and I went recently to Abbey Road on the River, a Beatles festival in Louisville, Kentucky. It was a trip I’d intended to make for more than a year, feeling deep down it would be a good subject to write on. I’m filled now with horror at coming away with hours of dictated notes, half a notebook of scribbling, hundreds of photos, and enough ideas to make my brain boil in its pot. I’ll have a McSweeney’s dispatch on the experience soon, and I’m working on something more, but in the meantime I wanted to share a couple of random thoughts and a blurry picture of someone dancing her heart out on the lawn in front of the Main Stage, under the influence of (at least) an early John Lennon tune. Rory, why didn’t you tell me your mom would be there?

In his essay “Writer and Region” (included in What are People For?) Wendell Berry says, “There is something miraculous about [Huck Finn’s voice]. It is not Mark Twain’s voice. It is the voice, we can only say, of a great genius named Huckleberry Finn, who inhabited a somewhat lesser genius named Mark Twain, who inhabited a frustrated businessman named Samuel Clemens.”

To paraphrase Berry, the great genius that is The Beatles is a single voice that inhabited a foursome of untrained but brilliant musicians from a depressed shipping port in England, who were also frustrated but (eventually) very rich businessmen. As Paul himself said, “The thing is, we’re all really the same person. We’re just four parts of the one.”

This single miraculous voice is made possible by the polyphony of the group—an easy key to lamentations their solo work isn’t uniformly as good—but also by the act of revision and the technologies that permit its layering. Surely somebody’s beat me to this term, but I’ll use it anyway: Theirs is a recursive voice made possible by the studio, as surely as Huck Finn’s is made possible by the technology of writing.

This came to me as Larry and I sat in a live concert meant to replicate the experience of listening to Love, the stage act in Vegas. Tribute and re-creation musicians from various Beatles bands largely did a fine job and had the audience on their feet by the end. But it was weird in 14 ways, starting with the fact that they were trying to play songs onstage that the Beatles shaped by working them over and over in the studio, often using multiple takes, and which were then re-mastered by Sir George Martin and his son in new combinations several decades later with recent technologies. The Love concert was powerful, but there was a gulf between it and “official” versions of the songs we all know best, if only because one was a sort of museum piece that strained for flat verisimilitude while the others condense life.

The intensity of the recursive voice also explains, I think, the inevitable deflation we feel meeting people from screen, stage or page: The persona is a shaped thing, made over time and revised with the aid of a thousand self-critics; the person crunches dill pickles in his maw while talking to you on the phone. Eddie Albert was once a jerk to me when I was a kid, which I had a hard time reconciling (back then) with my admiration for his work and causes. And the young woman and two young men who’ve proposed marriage to Oronte Churm based on things I’ve written might be very, very disappointed. (Ask Mrs. Churm.) Oronte Churm is a name assigned to my recursive self, a distillation of my watery parts. Now I have to go boil down all that stuff from Louisville....


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