Every once in a while I'll try to get into a unfamiliar genre of music. Most recently it was rap. I've listened to the odd album, but the genre as a whole has resisted my attempts to penetrate it.
This time I decided to go for the highest rated album on RYM, which happens to be Wu Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
I found it weirdly compelling, primarily due to RZA's production, which is heavily textured and spliced with martial arts film clips. I suppose I'll have to disentangle the lyrics sometime as well. But I'll spare you the music journalism.
What I'd like to tell you is a story that happened over 15 years ago and which, up until recently, consisted of my entire knowledge about the Wu Tang Clan. It's a story of an epistemological kerfuffle, though I wouldn't have phrased like that at the time.
One of my unusual friendships during high school was with Theo. We both had long hair and were below average students, but that was about all we had in common. He listened to hip hop and rave, did graffiti1, and spent most of his days on his BMX bike. I listened to metal and gothic rock, wrote poetry, and spent most of my days on my computer.
One day he told me a story that's stuck with me.
Theo was hanging out with some of his buddies at the square where they skated and biked. One of them spotted a girl walking across the street. He pointed at a shiny object on her belt and uttered some venerated words.
In a wave they all dropped what they were doing and rushed towards her, encircling her. Surrounded by half-a-dozen unruly boys, she must have felt a little afraid. But then, unaccountably, they fell prostrate at her feet, making exaggerated gestures of worship.
For a few moments there was no sound but that of those strange kowtowing faithful, murmuring three syllables over and over.
Wu. Tang. Clan.
The girl, having decided that the boys were more likely insane than dangerous, asked them what on earth was going on. Theo lifted his face towards hers, his eyes beaming. He pointed at the silver stylized 'W' at her waist.
"This?" she asked, looking down at her belt buckle.
"It is the sign of the Wu Tang Clan," he said with reverence.
"The Wu Tang who?" she said.
All at once the mumbling ceased. Some of the boys froze, their arms lifted in mid-worship.
"Are you not a fan of the Clan?" he said. The girl shook her head. "Then how dare you wear this?"
He got up on one knee, as if ready to pounce. For a moment, there was the whiff of something brutal in the air.
But she was wise enough to shrug it off. She said, "I just like how it looks."
Theo threw up his hands and turned to me. He said, "Can you believe how stupid she was?"
It was my turn to shrug. I thought about how to respond, in a calculation typical of that age, so that I would sound incredibly clever without hurting his feelings.
"She's not stupid," I said. "I don't think it means to her, what it means to you."
"It means what it is," Theo said, exasperated that I wasn't agreeing with him.2
"Right," I said. "But which 'is' is it? The insignia of the Wu Tang Clan or just a fancy 'W'?"
What ensued that afternoon was one of those impetuous but important conversations the young sometimes have about matters of utterly no consequence. We spent hours debating what is the meaning of a thing and how the meaning relates to its being, hashing through many philosophical arguments whose proper names and ancient provenance we were unaware of.
I'm sure you have a satisfying answer to our seeming quandary. You might even be a little impatient at our naiveté.
If you could have intervened in this argument, would you have told us how simple, how straight-forward things are?
If so, you would have fallen into the same trap that Theo and his buddies had fallen.
For while at face value this story makes a claim about the relativity of truth, at its heart it is about something stranger, but even more fundamental: It is not possible to understand when you already know.
If you go into a situation armed with your extensive knowledge of what things are and what they mean, you will miss what fails to fit into your existing notions.
Understanding is what happens when your awareness is directed towards what is going on. But so often we get caught up in the signs we use to represent those things in our mind. Then, like Theo and his buddies, we fall into the naïve belief that things can only be what they mean to us.
Sooner or later, we're bound to meet someone who thinks of us as slightly insane and confronts us with a question as impeccably inconceivable as "Wu Tang who?" was to Theo.
It will be to our credit if we can concede that, once more, we were blindsided by the pretty pictures in our heads.
Theo had strong opinions about whether graffiti should be written with an 'f' or a 'ph' and also about how many 'f's and 't's were permissible. I've forgotten on which side of the argument he stood. As with so many things, the esoteric details of our dearest arguments, to say nothing of the rancour they once stirred, are trampled by the inexorable march of the decades. ↩︎
Much later I realized that the tacit basis of our friendship is that we always agreed with each other. We each had our own group of friends to hang out with. But what we offered to each other was sanctuary. A safe place to mock and moan about our sub-cultures without fear of judgement. ↩︎