Friday, 9 March 2012

A Welcome to Freedom - Like A Rolling Stone

Fair enough, this song, from Highway 61 Revisited, is not one to approach without trepidation.  Surely there is nothing left to suck out of it?  But the song itself is still there and  I'm confident we all have a right of response to a public monolith; so here I am, ready with my gardener's tuppence.

It's actually at least as much of a woman's tuppence I suppose.  As a product of my own time, I never thought the song was anything other than a direct comment on the situation of women - women who were both mad and arrogant enough to think they were capable of being alone in the world, unprotected, yet with their illusions about their own powers, derived from their protected status, intact.

Those two conditions, being protected and being powerful, seemed to be mutually exclusive. And maybe they are, and maybe they should be.  Discuss.

Anyway being punished and abandoned  was apparently the shortest route to liberty for these basically useless creatures, women.  I sound jaundiced.  If you're not female, I completely accept that this was not necessarily the point of the song.

But I'll come back to all this.  For the moment I want to recall a hot July day about five years ago,  in Stockbridge, Massachusets, where I visited The Mount, Edith Wharton's creation and home.  The light was forceful, hammering down from the sky, completely unlike British light.  The trees and grass were emeralds, spinach, and luminous lime.  I was startled by the titanium white of the buildings and their height; the contrasts, the dazzle and the splendour. Hubris, one could think.

The house has a strong focus, out from the back, over the garden and beyond, to the wilderness.  From the high expansive terrace, so spacious and welcoming, you can sit in luxurious safety, viewing the perfected landscape at the nearer level, and the fenced and gated unknown distance.

Edith Wharton, it's well known, though wealthy from birth, made a miserable marriage of convenience for, like all of us, she needed the freedom of adulthood and that was mostly the only way to it at that time in her class.  She made her house and garden, but longed for Europe and an older world, so eventually left them.

Her divorce was inevitable, but corrosive and wrenching.  The fearsome threats and demands of freedom, particularly for women, were her subject in her novels.  Her life was a magnificent victory over these threats - but her female subjects did not always win their own battles and paid price after price.  I had not imagined that her garden too would so eloquently express the same themes - the threatening freedom of the outside, versus the obligations and privileges of high society.

Of course she was fascinated by Italian gardens - and this is part of what they too are seen to express, green slices or wedges of symmetry and order set in the wild wood.  They're often surprising and drenched with meaning about human aspirations, a matter of steps and strong axes.

As for the Dylan connection - well, what can I say, listen to the song again - you'll find the limits of self-knowledge and over-weening arrogance, vanity, treachery  and high society all there, perfectly embodied.  Glimpses of startling aggression and harshness flare in the distance and sometimes come close enough to destroy.

Like a Rolling Stone could have been written for Lily Bart, of The House of Mirth, a novel Edith Wharton wrote in 1905.    She, Ms Bart, hasn't understood the true cost of her access to wealthy homes and is destroyed by her prideful refusal to pay for it with her sexual  and marital freedom. The mystery tramp offers her no alibis, her youth and looks begin to fade, her admirers call in their favours and she ends up failing and incapable of making adequate, saleable hats, like the working women she has never really noticed.  She lacks strength and substance, she cannot survive, she's fit only for an early death.

Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden, Surrey, UK

And yet I'm not suggesting that the singer thinks death is the right punishment for a woman whose vanity and good fortune have made her heedless.  The song proposes that freedom from an old life, where everything is provided for, may offer unimagined possibilities, vast new horizons, glorious change and difference. None of these possibilities is ever directly alluded to; it's the loss of the previous chains to the shallow, the unworthy and  the failed that is described  - clever that; for we can each fill in the advantages, and the fearful dangers, of being thrown out into the world, on our owns, for ourselves.

Better commentators than I have perceptively described the contributions made to the theme by the music, the voice, the other players and history.  The circumstances of the song's live presentation, the force of the response, the effect, the universality - all these are deep in the hearts of most of us in late middle age.  Perhaps it really was about stepping into the unknown, smelling the freedom, taking a chance.

The song is and was exciting, if you can identify most closely with the singer.  For the target, it's fierce, less about her freedom and more about a vindictive hardening fire.  Aloneness, total responsibility for yourself, no chance of interdependence, no kindness of mutual support.  All illusions smashed and only your big-headed, unkindly self to blame.

Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, who  would step on her grandmother's head to get what she wants, embodies some kind of freedom and self-actualisation, in the ghastly jargon of the 1980s.  Her story is about how she knowingly flexes her powers - beauty, youth and low cunning, in the careless use and abuse of men who will help her.  She's Dylan's target character, but she heard the warnings and hardened early.  She takes control and lashes out first, never acquiring wisdom but getting what she wants. She's shallow and vulgar - but she never gets the punishment she seems to deserve.

It's hard not to take the song to heart, if you're female.  The protagonist feels the need to strip away the power of a young, lovely and foolishly arrogant woman, power she is less conscious of than he is.  She believes that anything she has been given was rightfully hers - it turns out that that is not the case.  The price is even higher because she is naive, young, lovely and unknowingly powerful.  It seems that if you're not going to be Undine Spragg, you'll end up as Lily Bart. Abuser or victim, take your choice.


So let's go back into the the garden at The Mount.  Feel the sense of welcome in the comfort of the terrace.  I found it captivating, a strange sense of entitlement filled me, created by the disposition of the terrace and the embraced grounds and view.  The most perfect welcome, to make you feel not just at home, but as though everything around you is your very own and  also the best it could possibly be. 

It's something to do with the convenience and protection of the balustrades, the wide, shallow garden and the sense of possession through the easy scanning of the eyes. The grandness and luxury seem perfectly reasonable, everything makes absolute sense, civilisation rules.  I feel quite sure I'd be capable of a little light banter over a complicated tea tray with a diplomat.  His siamese cat would probably curl up on my lap for an hour or two, while I jousted verbally and exquisitely through the long afternoon.

Watch out for my ostrich feathers, I think I'll just stroll down and take in that view again. Rather wild out there, beyond the manicured trees and lawns, it could even be a little threatening.  How clever of our hostess to create such a piquant scene!  One so suggestive, it seems to speak of the dangerous wild to us who are here, on the comfortable side.

Edith Wharton knew about the cold, the heat, and the fierce intractability of the landscape if you had to scratch a living from it.  She made it her business to find it out.  From this terrace we can see the rocky terrain, the thin soil, the distant wilderness where crops would have to be wrenched out of the soil.  In the garden easy, tough plants are used.  It's all about design and disposition.

The balance between the wild and the tamed is subtly managed, whether you're singing the song or sipping tea.  You're very close to your savage freedom, just on the edge; from the delicious comfort, you could almost touch it.  The maker of the garden, despite her enormous wealth, knew about compromising  with harsh realities, the songwriter knew about demolishing some threats, and embracing others.

The connections ramify, we must all find a place where we can manage to be, between the opposed forces. I'm not saying wealth and good fortune don't help.  But we all have to make our way and take some sort of responsibility; male or female, can you be kind and vulnerable as well?

Edith Wharton appreciated her advantages and worked hard, being the best she could be at everything she tried.  I don't imagine she was ever that good at making herself vulnerable.  The rejection she received when she tried, wildly, for a happy relationship was devastating.  So courage, intellect, good works, and strength of mind were her portion.  Her garden is a monument to that, a welcome to freedom, but a protection too.  Her novels are the same, easy to read but dense with significance about the human condition, even now.

As for the song, I've said my piece, and now I'll hold my tongue.  Like a woman who's finally beginning to catch on.


  1. What a wonderful post, Jane. I have been waiting for the Mount! And you did it so well with this song. She was indeed a strong woman and she would not take a back seat to anyone! I ate lunch on that patio a few years back and felt so at home! I cannot wait to get back this spring and summer. My first visit there was in the winter and it was closed. The snow and ice were difficult driving up the driveway, but having come from California, I was determined. I had no idea how beautiful the gardens would be when I returned. So happy you were able to visit. If I go I will email you some photos. Lovely job. gin

  2. So glad you felt I did it justice Gin. I look forward to your photos - isn't it telling that we both had that feeling of hospitality? Very confirming. That's what I look for in a garden, a feel of personality and communication. Thanks for your comments as ever, gives me such encouragement.