Saturday, November 01, 2008

Clean Hands

A student wants to write a paper on “Lay Lady Lay,” but she’s supposed to be writing from a political perspective, and she doesn’t see how you can possibly approach “Lay Lady Lady” with a political interpretation. I tell her I’ll give her a lot of leeway -- maybe there’s no chance. But on my way home, all I can think of are political interpretations of “Lay Lady Lay.” And that just with the few lines I can remember.

I generally figure I can write anything I want in this blog under the safe assumption that my students don’t read it. I generally figure I can write anything I want under the safe assumption that nobody reads it. But Skye, if you happen to find this, I guess it’s a gift.

“Lay Lady Lay” is powerfully erotic charged – it exists in an erotic moment, and it’s easy to see why no would wanna step back and consider its political implications. You wanna be her, about to tumble into that big brass bed. You wanna be him, aflame with desire.

But who are these people? She’s a lady. And who is he? Just from the couple of snatches I remember of the song, his hands are clean. Who comments on the cleanness of his hands? Not an aristocrat. He’d take it for granted. So he’s a workingman, a peasant. He’s the Gypsy Davy. He’s the Cowboy and the Lady, the cowboy and the lady in tight fitting jeans. It’s class warfare – the aristocrat who can’t give his wife the earthy delight that she needs (I find myself assuming the Lady is married). It’s the basis of racism, and all class snobbery – the fear of losing our women to them, the fear of the conqueror that the soft life of the ruling class has robbed them of their virility.

The reverse of that – the aristocrat and the milkmaid – can play itself out in one archetype as the Cinderella story – poor girl uses her sexuality to raise herself in class, but she’s still the loser in gender politics, she’s still subservient. The other reversal, in the traditional gender archetype – the cowboy gets the lady to say yes – his earthy sexuality brings her down to his level, and she loves it, The milkmaid gets to say No to the aristocrat. She leaves him unsatisfied…she keeps the upper hand. Sarah Palin – in her scenario, at least – says No to the foppish, white wine-and-brie-loving Obama. You want me, but you can’t have me. I’m fucking Grandpa instead.

If there’s an element of class anger here, there’s sexual politics too. She’s Milady; she’s Madonna. And he’s there to turn her from Madonna to whore, the two archetypal roles. He’s going to lay her across the brass bed of a New Orleans whorehouse.

But the Gypsy Davy, like Jody in the army archetype, has got the girl and gone. Gone for good. Even here, there's a hierarchy. Jody's a bottom feeder, the Gypsy Davy represents freedom, escape from the whole capitalist trap, as well as the sexual virility that comes with it. The cowboy, on the other hand, doesn’t get to keep the lady, but she’ll never really belong to the rich rancher again.

None of this is the case with Clean Hands. He’s still begging. He is, in the terms of the other stories we’ve read this semester, the supplicant student of Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant,” not the jolly coachman-seducer of Maupassant’s “Confessing.” He’s Keats’s bold lover – all of which makes the song so erotic. Desire is erotic. The Gypsy Davy, the Cowboy, Jody – they really are about power. The erotic moment is past for them. And we know what happens if the Bold Lover wins his goal. The Madonna doesn’t become the whore; the fairy becomes the demon. The sexual conqueror becomes the sex slave. La Belle Damn Sans Merci has him in thrall.

It’s Clean Hands’s vulnerability that gives him the intensity of desire. He can’t know what colors the aristocrat has on her mind. He can tell her that, like Marie Antoinette, she can have her cake and eat it too, and the magic of the moment of desire allows us to forget that Marie Antoinette couldn’t have that either.

But getting back to the political, by pleading for the lady, Clean Hands is buying into the capitalist system, the hierarchy of power. He wants her because she's a lady, because she's the unattainable, because she's a step up the ladder.


OK, Skye -- that's a start. Next time I'll actually look at the rest of the song.

1 comment:

Skye said...

It's definitely a beautiful song, but I think it's more about a hardworking, honest middle class man talking to the woman he loves, savoring the moments he has with her. The music and the way Dylan sings the song definitely adds into that interpretation, I think. Lady Lady Lay is surely my favorite Dylan song.

-Skye. :)