Friday, March 25, 2022


I would like to discuss the example of two competing versions of some lyrics by one of the great 20th-Century poets, Jeffrey Hyman (aka Joey Ramone). The printed, “official” (boo, hiss) version uses direct quotation of speech, whereas the lyrics as (apparently) sung use indirect quotation; this has pronounced effects on the way the subjectivities of the speaker and his interlocutor are developed in the song itself

The lyrics, as found online, are as follows:

Questioningly, her eyes looked at me,
and then she spoke, “Aren’t you someone
I used to know, and weren’t we lovers
a long time ago?”

Looked at her close, forced her into view,
Yes,” I said, “You’re a girl
that I once may have knew.”

In this version the reported speech (including that of the I who is reporting) is carefully bracketed and kept separate from the narrative itself. Self and other are kept carefully apart and communicate solely through speech, in fact through implausibly blunt, stagey speech. Compared to the sung lyrics (below), much of the development and nuance has been sacrificed so that “clear-cut, external contours” can be maintained, in accordance with the style of “authoritarian dogmatism” as per Volosinov/Bakhtin. Note (as you probably have) that in this direct-quotation version ends with a particularly egregious example of poetic license overriding syntax (“I once may have knew”) ( as well as the clumsy use of spoke instead of said in the second line).

Whether as an effect of the gap between script and performance, dialectal pronunciation, melismatic rock crooning, or some combination of these, the sung version, as I hear it, differs through the use solely of indirect quotation (if even that), which leads to a process of progressive contamination of (and struggle over) the subjectivity of the first-person narrator, who is also a character.

Questioningly, her eyes looked at me,

In the first line, the agent is not “her” but “her eyes”, a clue to the fact that visual rather than aural communication will remain central to the account.

And then she spoke unto someone I used to know,

The first-person narrator apparently agrees with Goffman that the “I” by which we refer to ourselves is “a figurea figure in a statementthat serves as the agent, a protagonist in a described scene, a ‘character’ in an anecdote, someone, after all, who belongs to the world that is spoken about, not the world in which the speaking occurs” (Goffman 1981: 147). He uses the flexibility this creates to avoid being addressed by making a perhaps Sartrean distinction between the I of Es and the I of Et (which becomes split into I and someone). Becoming unstuck in time, he does not recognize her as addressing him, but as addressing “someone I used to know,” even though this someone is his past self with which he refuses to identify.

and weren’t we lovers a long time ago?

This apparent quotation could be considered a mid-sentence split suddenly developing between the “narrator” (as a function of the narrative) and the first-person character, but I think its more productive to think of it as the dissolution of the first-person narrator’s ego.

The change of voice in mid-sentence (especially with that “and”) obviates the narrator’s attempts at avoiding identification: instead he is subsumed into the “we” who are both subject and object of this question. It is not clear if these words are in fact spoken, or by whom; they may be communicated by her eyes, or be posited necessarily by the very fact of these two people meeting each other’s glances. In a way this line is not quotation at all, but a metalinguistic commentary on the interaction itself.

Looked at her close, forced her into view,

Nietzsche may have felt that to speak of an “I” who “acts” is a needless doubling, a mistaken positing of cause and effect, akin to saying that “lightning flashes” (which is to divide the event into subject and action). Joey’s narrator, however, is here trying to regain his I-ness through first-person action, even if he not able at this point to regain “I” per se. Specifically he seeks a position as Cartesian subject, looking out at the world, and distinct from the world by means of this looking. So to “force her into view” is to regain his own identity from the encompassing we-ness of the previous line (and to describe the action in this way, as the narrator does, is metapragmatic commentary on the interactional effect of such a move of “close looking”).

just to say, you’re a girl

“You’re a girl” is not necessarily spoken out loud, its “saying” being more an effect of his looking, which repositions her as “you.” He is now ready to restore himself to being an “I”, but things will then rapidly fall apart again. This dissolution over the next line is accentuated by the music which consists of descending heavy, lingering chords, which each play predictable roles within the self-referentially “classic” rock model in which the song is written:


[Fourth]            I

[Minor Sixth]    once

                          may have

[Fifth]                knew

The confident fourth chord with its I is swiftly undermined by the troubled sixth, during which the narrator again tries distancing tactics (“once,” “may have”). But by the final fifth, which marks this part of the song as unresolved (it needs to end on a first), the narrative ego is again dissolved into a “he” or more probably the returning “we”, subject of “knew;” his belonging to this we is in fact the central message of the song, a message which the author resists, but which, in the interaction within which he finds himself, he cannot avoid voicing.

This interpretation of the lyrics (whether or not it is correct) leads to a much more nuanced understanding of the shifts of subjectivity involved. However, looking back at the direct-quotation version of the lyrics, the stilted, cartoonishly archetypal confrontation can now be seen as itself a metalinguistic reference to the more subtle, interactionally metapragmatic possibilities exploited in the indirect-quotation version. It therefore becomes clear, in the over-directness of their statements, that the interlocutors may not be “speaking” these words after all, but “saying” them nevertheless.

Goffman, Erving (1981) Forms of Talk. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

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