The Second Most Evil Song of All Time!

Here we go again….  😉  As with the Most Evil Song of all time, it’s not about musicianship, or whether the song is a “good” pop song or not, or what your feelings about Justin Timberlake may be.  It’s not even about the conscious intentions of the songwriter(s).  It’s about the message contained within the song.  Let’s jump right in.  Here are the full lyrics (which can be found lots of other places, too); and I’ve quoted the part I want to look at below, my emphasis, as usual:

‘Cause I don’t wanna lose you now
I’m looking right at the other half of me
The vacancy that sat in my heart
Is a space that now you hold
Show me how to fight for now
And I’ll tell you, baby, it was easy
Coming back into you once I figured it out
You were right here all along
It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me
And now it’s clear as this promise
That we’re making two reflections into one
‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me

Superficially, this is better than Savage Garden’s “I Knew I Loved You”, which implies that the lover is brought into very existence merely at the whim and pleasure of the narrator.  Here, the beloved has a separate existence, at least.  The first line of the song, not in the block above, says, “Aren’t you somethin’ to admire/’Cause your shine is somethin’ like a mirror” which at least acknowledges the lover as a “Thou“, a real Other, and compliments her.  However, in the very next line, the narrator says, “And I can’t help but notice/You reflect in this heart of mine.”  Well, it was good while it lasted.

The whole premise is that, while the lover is indeed Other, with her own existence, still her main function seems to be as relates to the narrator.  She is his “mirror” that’s “staring back” at him.  In short, the Beloved might not be conjured up for the Lover; but she is nevertheless subsumed within the Lover for what she can give him–for her ability to reflect him back at himself.  What about her needs, though?  It’s true that the narrator says, “And now it’s clear as this promise/That we’re making two reflections into one” (see above); but immediately he returns to saying “‘Cause it’s like you’re my mirror/My mirror staring back at me, staring back at me.”  So does “making two reflections into one” mean that the relationship is a give and take between two individuals, each with his/her own needs, strengths, and weaknesses?  Or are they “one” because the narrator absorbs the Beloved, as we saw that the devils in Screwtape do (once more, see the previous installment for details)?  It’s hard to say; but given the unconscious assumption of our culture, I’m not sanguine that it’s not the latter.  After all, as we can see in the blockquote above, it seems to be about making the narrator “bigger”, showing him how to “fight” and holding the “vacancy” in his heart.

With all this talk of mirrors, I can’t help but be reminded of the famous Zen story told of the Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui-neng (which I alluded to back here).  Hui-neng was said to be an illiterate wood cutter from the provinces who came to study under the Fifth Zen Patriarch Hung-jen.  One day Hung-jen announced a contest.  Each monk under his supervision would submit a verse to show his understanding of Zen.  Whoever gave the verse that best exemplified the meaning of Zen would become Hung-jen’s successor.  Everyone expected that the monk Shen-hsiu, considered to be the star pupil, would become the successor to Hung-jen.  Sure enough, Shen-hsiu submitted the following (I’ve taken several different translations and made them into passable English verse.  Yeah, I know I disagree with doing that; but for the purposes here, let it pass!)*, posting it on a wall in the monastery with the other entrants:

The body is the Bodhi Tree;
The mind is like a mirror bright.
Take care to keep it always clean,
That dust on it may not alight.

All the monks were duly impressed, and certain that this was the winning verse.  Hui-neng came up to the wall and asked one of the other monks to read it to him.  The monk did so, and Hui-neng, shaking his  head, said, “No, that’s not right.  If I give you a verse, will you write it down and post it for me?”  The other monk agreed.  Hui-neng gave him the following verse:

Bodhi is not at all a tree;
There is no mirror bright.
Since there is nothing from the first,
Where can the dust alight?

Later that evening, Hung-jen called Hui-neng to his quarters.  Unlike the others, Hung-jen knew well that Hui-neng had a high level of realization.  He asked Hui-neng if he had written the second verse, and Hui-neng affirmed that he had.  “You are my true successor!” was Hung-jen’s reply.  He then passed Hui-neng his cloak and bowl, the signs of his authority.  It is said that Hui-neng fled the monastery under the cover of darkness with the cloak and bowl, fearing the wrath of the other monks when they found out that an illiterate wood cutter had succeeded to the Patriarchy of Zen!

Most modern scholars believe the story is a myth.  That’s all right; that’s not relevant to the point I’m making here.  The idea of the first verse, by Shen-hsiu, is the conventional Mahayana view of the human being.  All humans–all sentient beings, in fact–have an innate Buddha-nature.  The common metaphor for this is that the mind is like “a mirror bright”.  A mirror is not affected by dirt or dust that collects on it–its mirror-nature is unchanged.  Wipe off the dust, spray on some Windex and clean it up, and the mirror reflects as well as ever.  Likewise, the Mahayana view is that we’re “already” enlightened, the pure Buddha-nature at the core of our being.  This Buddha-nature is perfect as it is; but we can’t realize it’s there or access it because of the layers of delusion, emotion, and neuroses that cover it.  Spirituality is gradually cleaning all this psychological and spiritual “dust” off of the “mirror bright” of our Buddha-nature.  Once that’s done, we experience enlightenment.  Rather than being self-centered, our mind reflects back the cosmos.  Rather than a lover being a mirror to us, we are a mirror to him or her, and in fact to the whole world.  It’s no longer about us.

Hui-neng is more radical, in typical Zen fashion.  To speak of the “mirror bright” of our minds vs. all the rest of the world is to make a separation between “us” in “here” and “everything else” out “there”.  However, the Buddhist concept of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) says that everything is interconnected, with one thing arising because something else arises.  You can’t take something and separate it from all the rest of the cosmos.  Moreover, nothing has an intrinsic, self-contained, separate existence, anyway.  This is the doctrine of śūnyatā, “emptiness”, encapsulated in the famous dictum of the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”  Thus, full realization allows us to see that there’s no real dualism, no separation of subject and object.  There “is no mirror bright”, and nothing for it to reflect, and nowhere for “dust to alight”.  From this perspective, there’s no room for self-centeredness, as there is no self and no center in the first place.  Thus, not only is it not about us–there’s not even an “us” for it to be about!

While we’re on Zen, the great American Zen master, the late Robert Aitken, had something interesting to say–and relevant to the discussion here–in the book The Ground We Share, a conversation between him and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.  At one point, Aitken says that his father used to teasingly call his mother “Mrs. Me”.  He says he doesn’t recall his mother ever calling his father “Mr. Me”, and speculates about what such a thing means about our views of human relationships, selfhood, and autonomy.  Certainly, we do tend to view our significant others as “Mr. or Ms. Me”, as mirrors to reflect ourselves back at us.  We don’t want to accept that “there is no mirror bright”, that “there is nothing from the first”, and that it’s really, really not about us.

To phrase it in Christian terminology, Philippians 2:5-7 says:  “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”  We’re supposed to imitate Christ–but who wants to empty himself?  Don’t we usually want to fill ourselves?  Just like C. S. Lewis’s demons?  Food for thought, indeed!

Now I gave “I Knew I Loved You” a fair break in pointing out parts of it that were actually non-evil, so the least I can do for “Mirrors” is the same.  Toward the end of the song, we hear

Now you’re the inspiration for this precious song
And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on
So now I say goodbye to the old me, it’s already gone
And I can’t wait wait wait wait wait to get you home
Just to let you know, you are

So maybe the lover provokes change in the narrator–it’s not just her validating him–reflecting him back to himself–but helping him to grow and change.  That is still portraying her in terms of him; but it’s at least a little better than making her a mere mirror to him.  Then again,  you also see the line, “And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on”.  So she’s supposed to be assimilated into him?  Maybe the boldface line doesn’t mitigate the rest of the song….

Anyway, as with Savage Garden, I don’t think Justin Timberlake had any consciousness of anything other than writing romantic boilerplate, and probably intended, by describing the beloved as his “mirror” to show how much she meant to him.  Probably.  The point is that this still illustrates the latent cultural assumptions about the Beloved as one who is absorbed or subsumed by me, or who completes me or benefits me.  I think this is one of the subtle factors in the problems relationships experience in our society.  We expect it to be about us; we want someone to fulfill everything–to be mother, sister, lover, buddy, sounding board, etc. (change the gender of the nouns as needed)–someone to complete us (Have I noted yet that I think “You complete me” is the most evil line in Jerry McGuire, a movie that I’ve never seen and have no desire to see?  Anyway….).  I wouldn’t want to go back to a society with arranged marriages, or marriages in which you more or less were stuck with who was available, even if it wasn’t formally arranged.  At least with those kinds of marriages, one had no illusions about the magic ability of the Other to “complete” one, or be one’s “mirror”, or be one’s “everything” (Which brings to mind the Andy Gibb song–I’m not going to write a post about it, but it’s pretty evil, too).  As I said, I don’t want to go back to those models–I am committed to companionate, or if you prefer, “romantic”, marriages–but I’d like to see us, as a society, do some real, hard thinking about the underlying assumptions we have with that model, and try to find ways to deal with them; ways to keep the best aspects of companionate marriage while avoiding the pitfalls.  Not an easy task, but one can hope.

My psychology professor in college once said that a relationship is like two trees growing together.  You don’t want one to shade out the other, or be so close that it crowds it out; and you don’t want them to be so far apart that they’re separate.  They should be at just the right distance, their branches intertwining but not overshadowing each other, each supporting the other without overwhelming it.  Well, it was a very 70’s kind of metaphor (I took this course in ’83 or ’84, but the professor would have got his degree in the early 70’s), but I think there’s something to it, for all that.  We should strive not to “dream each other into life” or be each other’s “mirror” or “complete” each other and so on; but to be, like Baucis and Philemon, intertwined trees.  Happy trees!  On which note, I leave you with this:

*Today I just finished reading Brad Warner’s book on Zen, Don’t Be a Jerk, and he gives a verse translation of the poems I discuss above.  As I originally noted, doing sort of a mashup without actually translating, as I did here, is against my general principles; so I decided to discuss the verses and the translation thereof at greater length.  This is language geek material, so if it’s not your thing, feel free to return to the main text.

The original Chinese of Shen-hsiu’s verse is as follows: 





Hui-neng’s response is





A fairly literal translation of each in turn (courtesy of Wikipedia) would be as follows: 

The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.
At all times we must strive to polish it
and must not let dust collect.

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The bright mirror also has no stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing.
Where could dust arise?

I first encountered this story and the verses in D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.  He translates the verses as follows:

This body is the Bodhi-tree;
The soul is like the mirror bright;
Take heed to keep it always clean,
And let no dust collect upon it.

The Bodhi (True Wisdom) is not like the tree;
The mirror bright is nowhere shining:
As there is nothing from the first,
Where does the dust itself collect?

As is obvious, my version is mostly based upon my slightly flawed memory of Suzuki.  I remember when I first read his version that I was puzzled that he wrote the first verse–Shen-hsiu’s–in what would have been perfect English verse except that he inexplicably breaks the meter and gives no rhyme in the last line.  In translating Hui-neng’s verse, except for the third line, which is fine, he doesn’t even seem to bother.  I remember being somewhat irritated at this–either translate it as actual, structured verse, or just do free verse altogether, or a prose paraphrase!  My version is essentially a metrically tidied-up version of Suzuki, with rhyme added.  I also have “mind” instead of “soul”, because I misremembered Suzuki.  However, “soul” is a rather eccentric rendition of 心 (xīn in modern Mandarin, and shin in Japanese).  The character represents a heart, which is the literal meaning; but unlike the Western connection of the heart with emotions, xīn implies “mind”, usually in a holistic and intuitive sense.  “Soul” in the Judeo-Christian sense of an immaterial locus of the personality which survives death is not only a bad rendition, but a foundational doctrine of Buddhism is that there is no permanent, essential soul (anātman).  In any case, I think my version, while admittedly a paraphrase, is not at all bad, no worse than Suzuki’s.

Warner, in Don’t Be a Jerk, translates the verses thus:

My body’s like the Bodhi tree
My mind is like a mirror stand
From all dust to keep it free
I wipe it off with a cloth in hand

In the state of bodhi there is no tree
Nor does a mirror need a stand
We have nothing at all originally
So where could dust possibly land?

Interestingly, given the depth of Suzuki’s scholarship–he was able to read, write, and speak many modern and ancient languages connected to Buddhism–his translation (and thus mine, following it) is less accurate than Warner’s.  Suzuki speaks only of the mirror without reference the stand, and speaks merely of keeping it clean, not “wiping” or “polishing” it, which is more in line with the original Chinese.  Warner makes no claims to be a scholar of Chinese, mainly following Dogen’s Japanese gloss, and yet his version is closer to the Chinese, and is written in proper English verse, as well.  Go figure. 

In any case, in light of this I’ll give myself two cheers, at least, for making a mashup that’s not too horrible, and which departs from the original only because Suzuki’s translation does so.  For those who just can’t get enough and want to know even more nut-and-bolt details of translating this, check out this discussion.  Whew!  Now back to evil songs!


Posted on 28/03/2018, in music, pop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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