Wednesday, November 7, 2018

XTC's "Dear God": Full Commentary

"What the hell are you getting so upset about," Yossarian asked Lt. Scheisskopf's wife bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. "I thought you didn't believe in God."

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.”

Yossarian laughed and turned her arms loose. “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us,” he proposed obligingly. “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”

                                                              -- From Catch-22

I first heard "Dear God" roughly 30 years ago when a student (who I will call "Julie Brannon" to protect her anonymity) made a mix tape for me so I'd know "what cool people listen to." Of the 20-25 songs on the tape, "Dear God" was my favorite. I liked everything about the song, the child's opening and closing it, Andy Partridge's voice (it sounded exactly like the Eighties) ,the increased intensity and tempo of the last stanzas (possibly called accelerando or maybe crescendo -- you make the call), and most of all the subject matter.

The song presents a seemingly facile argument, and maybe that's why it's cathartic for many of us. We expect little more from a "rock" or "pop" song. Partridge is venting for his fans, not inviting the meditation evoked by, for example, Leonard Cohen's  "Anthem."   

What I try and fail to do in the following is to slow down "Dear God" enough that I can ponder Partridge's topic and his presentation of it with both the seriousness and playfulness it deserves. A song about our "ultimate concern," whatever it is we place atop all our priorities, should be looked at with both a cold eye and a wink, don't you think?

So here is part one. The song's lyrics are here in their entirety, and the peculiar Vimeo video is here

Dear God, hope you got the letter  The opening line offers much unpackable material. Given the content of the song, "Dear" must be seen as ironic, bordering on oxymoronic. The God addressed in the following lines is not in any way "dear" to the narrator. 

Furthermore, "Dear God" mimics the conventional salutation of a letter and thus identifies the poem as epistolary. The remainder of the line -- "hope you got the letter" -- seemingly refers to a previous letter, now lost to history, to which this one is a follow up.

Some scholars claim the poem is an apostrophe as well as an epistolary piece, such as Dylan Thomas's "Death, Be Not Proud," Cohen's "If It Be Your Will," and "O courage, could you not as well / Select a second place to dwell?" from Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana.

This poses a thorny question: Does the narrator believe he is addressing a dead or absent God or does he see God as an inanimate object capable of reading a letter sent by someone who doesn't believe He exists? Perhaps Partridge will settle this debate later in his poem.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Finally, these introductory lines come from a child, evoking a host of biblical passages: Isaiah 11:6 ("And a little child shall lead them"), Psalm 8:2 ("Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and avenger"), Matthew 19:14 
("Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these"), and others. 

While this adds to the poem's pathos, the irony is as rich as it is obvious. The child who leads us and from whose mouth comes strength and to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs (I'm picturing Emma Gonzales here!), this very child now confronts her maker with a tone that rapidly evolves from deferential to righteously indignant.

And I pray you can make it better / Down here. The narrator uses both human (a letter) and divine (a prayer) means to express his request. Also, in "Down here," note the time-honored spatial distancing between creator and creature, i.e., the creator being a sky god (called Nobodaddy by William Blake), the creature being earth bound.

I don't mean a big reduction in the price of beer   Many Partridgeans argue that the poet would gladly accept a small reduction in the price of beer, regardless of his belief or lack of same. Evidence suggests Partridge was aware of the aphorism attributed to Benjamin Franklin, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," but unaware of Brett Kavanaugh's lip-smacking beer fetish


But all the people that you made in your image / See them starving on their feet / 'Cause they don't get enough to eat / From God  As the first stanza comes to a close, the narrator acknowledges that the God he doesn't believe in attempted to duplicate in humans his own image and, we assume, his beauty, wisdom and sense of humor.

This God is also the sole provider of their sustenance, possibly echoing Blake's "The Lamb": "Gave thee [the Lamb] life and bid thee feed / By the stream and o'er the mead." When his people are "starving on their feet," it's because they didn't "get enough to eat / From God" -- the same God the narrator can't believe in!

Dear God, sorry to disturb you, but I feel /That I should be heard loud and clear  This is a much more civil and reverent supplication than the one we heard from the pissed off Job insisting that the God he does believe in account for his (God's) unspeakable cruelty. But maybe Partridge's narrator should have been more cantankerous, should have shaken his fist harder because, unlike Job, he gets no Divine response. 

Granted, Job was essentially told to shut the freak up, but at least it was something.

If you're fond of labeling and classifying, both works could be considered "literature of divine rebellion." The Book of Job could be called a theodicy, a defense of God's goodness and omnipotence coexisting with evil, suffering and the like. No such defense in "Dear God."

Did you make disease and the diamond blue?  What a rhetorical rat's nest we have here! These must be rhetorical questions since the narrator doesn't believe in God and thus cannot expect Him to answer them. 

But to what effect? Asking God if He is equally responsible for abundant pain and starvation, inevitable deteriorating health followed by death as well as the bountiful wealth acquired by the few (1%?) imaged in the "diamond blue" -- does this challenge God's existence or His goodness or his power?

Is this Zoroastrianism, i.e., an eternal struggle between a good spirit and an evil one? 

Is the narrator suggesting a yin and yang deity in which the dark and light are complementary? No. In "Dear God," the dark is unacceptable, esp. if there's an omnipotent God in the house.

Is it an either-or fallacy, a bifurcation, an oversimplification, to wit, "Make up your mind, God. You can't be real if you create both beautiful fall days and lethal Category 5 hurricanes; or, if you are real, you are weak on this earth and therefore can't be counted on to intervene when we need you, e.g., when we're starving or our house is floating down the Mississippi or we contract terminal cancer."

Here the narrator is essentially plagiarizing both Psalms 22:1 and Matthew 27:46: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Also rendered in Aramaic dialect: "Eloi, Eloi,  [or Eli, Eli] lama sabachthani?"

Forsaken, his belief melts quicker than the wet wicked Witch of the West, and who can blame him?

But unheard pleas for help do not necessarily suggest a nonentity. The whole mixed blessing dilemma has been acknowledged for centuries. We've all heard the old maxims that give no comfort, "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away," and "The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike."

Here's one more bit of poetry that provides an answer to the narrator's question, "Did you make disease and the diamond blue?" Dylan's "Father of Night" (1970) praises a God responsible for what we need and/or desire, as well as what we dread. He is "Father of night, Father of Day, / . . . / Father of loneliness and pain, / Father of love and Father of rain." And the rest of it is here. (This was eight years before Dylan's conversion and swimming pool baptism which produced such tripe as "You Gotta Serve Somebody.")

Did you make mankind after we made you? / And the devil too! Dear God indeed! Here the narrator blindsides his careful listeners with a postmodern, nonlinear, achronological time machine that, upon reflection, gives them severe headaches. "Did you make mankind?" is a simple enough yes-or-no question, but the implied "did we make you first?" is a slice of non digestible logic.

The narrator is probably saying that humans needed an origin story, so they told stories about a creator god and then came to believe their story to be both true and factual, leading them to regard themselves as the literal products of their own metaphor. (That gives me a headache, too.)

But there are other views on the "who created (or is creating) whom" question, for example, in Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young PoetHenry Nelson Weiman's The Source of Human Good, Alfred North Whitehead and his gang of "process" theologians, and even in Tennyson's Victorian masterpiece In Memoriam

In a passage I cannot find from Rilke's Letters, he theorizes that God is the cumulative effect of human goodness, i.e., the sum of human kindness. Every sacrifice for the greater good, every act of charity, compassion and love is just another brick in the Temple of God, of Its eternal being. Rilke, then, would say to God, "Yes, we made you and are still making you."

In Human Good, Weiman says, "The only creative God we recognize is the creative event itself"; Partridge's composing "Dear God" is a creative event and this act is therefore the creative God who can create us now that our creative events have made him. 

And I am making him now, this very eternal moment, because this piece did not exist until my aging, anemic imagination brought it forth. I said, "Let there be 'XTC's Daydream (Non)Believer,' and there was 'XTC's Daydream (Non)Believer'." And I saw that it was not bad.

Whitehead says, "It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God." His answer to "Did you make mankind after we made you?" then is "Yes, and vice versa."

Tennyson's claim is a little different. As consolation for the death of his best friend Arthur Hallam, he argues that over time, humans will shed their animal nature, their greed and cruelty, and will eventually become Christlike ("The Christ that is to be") -- a state Hallam had already achieved when he died at 22. Here again, we are creating God.

Am I guilty here of the intentional fallacy? Was Partridge even aware of process theology? It doesn't matter. The poem is ours now, not his. In all fairness to me, I've reached out to Partridge numerous times during my research, but he has yet to respond. As far as I know, he could be dead -- or pretending to be, for tax purposes.

The exclamatory "And the devil too" is in a syntactically ambiguous position. Does it complete the question beginning "Did you make"? Did you make mankind and the devil too?

Or does it go with "after we made you"? After we made you and the devil too? I lean toward the latter. 

The Christian myth too obviously answers "yes" to the first half of the question if by "devil" the narrator means "Lucifer." Later the husband of Lucretia MacEvil, Lucifer was originally the light-bearer and morning star, the "fallen angel" who pays dearly for his reluctance to be God's second banana: According to John Milton, it took the Evil One nine days to fall from heaven to hell, and he was hauling ass! This give us some idea of just how far apart these two eschatological properties are. 
Dore's version of Lucifer's long fall
He also goes by Satan, but in the infernal roll call, there are some distinctions between Satan and the devil. In the Book of Job, for example, the former is the Accuser who slaughters Job's livestock, servants and family only after he gets the Divine Green Light from God. 

Yes, we made "the devil too" so we had someone to blame for our countless shortcomings. But, hey, we're only human.

Dear God, don't know if you noticed / But your name is on a lot of quotes in this book / Us crazy humans wrote it. The narrator's shocker, I suspect, is supposed to be that last line with its refusal to credit God for being the best-selling author of the bible. 

Not much of a shocker anymore. I would guess that 98 percent of Christians who grew up to be bible scholars, linguists, textual critics, archaeologists, philosophers, etc., or to have a mere modicum of skepticism can see far too many intrusive fingerprints and layers of text separated by decades in a single story to believe the Almighty literally wrote that sprawling, cobbled tome.

Did he inspire its composition? If so, he sure inspired a lot of editing, redacting, revision, and tacked-on endings.

To save myself from giving you huge chunks of supporting evidence, I refer you -- just as starters -- to Marvin H. Pope's Anchor Bible retranslations of and commentaries on the Book of Job and Song of Songs. If that doesn't support Partridge's biblical divine authorship skepticism, try Father Louis F. Hartman and Father Alexander A. Di Lella's translation, introduction to and commentary on the Anchor Bible Book of Daniel.

Want something easier with a focused thesis? Try Beyond Belief written by Elaine Pagels, who may know the Gospels as well as anyone.

Maybe "us crazy humans wrote it" in the sense that as writers we are hopelessly subjective and sick with motives secret even to ourselves, even if our topic is "People's Alleged Encounters with God." We describe encounters not with accuracy as our goal, but to persuade others to see what we see and to derive similar themes, morals or lessons.

Before we boldly advance to the poem's next line, let's sum up our premature conclusion based on the poem so far: The narrator's disbelief rests on his insistence that a real God would intervene on our behalf every minute and hour for all the days of our lives, so perhaps his song would be more accurately titled, "Dear God, I'm a Believer that You're an Underachiever," then this postscript from the process theology point of view, "We're not through with you yet. The best is yet to come!"


As we noted earlier, XTC's "Dear God" begins with a child meekly beseeching divine intervention for the people God made in His image.

For example, stanza 1 begins, "Dear God, hope you got the letter / And I pray . . .," stanza 2, no longer spoken by a child, with "Dear God, sorry to disturb you," but then comes a shift. 

The third stanza is a tercet, with violins (as clearly seen in the video) evoking a more mellow tone which suggests an almost bucolic, peaceful, pastoral setting, not an environment in which a theological grilling is taking place. Here, in the Garden, Mr. Apostate himself is introduced: "And the devil too."

Nothing can be the same now, can it? 

Following the string-soothed tercet, stanza 5 begins with the narrator either gently or sarcastically suggesting that the world's sorrows have escaped God's alleged omniscience: "Dear God, don't know if you've noticed." We have discussed the content of this above, but not its closing couplet where one might say all hell begins to break loose, even though the speaker doesn't believe in it. 

When the narrator/vocalist/poet (I give up on what to call this guy) gets to what sounds (and looks) like the stanza's final line, he makes two significant changes: One, he doesn't complete the line, i.e., "I can't believe in," not "I can't believe in you." 

Two, he adds a line: "I don't believe in," and continues the epistrophe at the beginning of the next stanza: "I won't believe in."

For your visual satisfaction, it looks like this: 

   I can't believe in
   I don't believe in

   I won't believe in heaven and hell (emphasis mine, obviously)

Before stanza 5, the poem's literary music has been generated by a fairly consistent rhyme scheme of AABBCDDEF, with the C lines (5, 13 and 25) ending with "in your image," while the poem's music music (sic) comes from a blend of acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drums and, beginning with the tercet, violins.

In stanza 5, this changes drastically to a strident, militant drumbeat intensified by an unchanging rhyme, with each line halved by a caesura, which I will now illustrate: 

   No saints, no sinners, // no devil as well
   No pearly gates, // no thorny crown
   You're always letting // us humans down
   The wars you bring, // the babes you drown
   Those lost at sea // and never found
   And it's the same // the whole world 'round
   The hurt I see // helps to compound

The caesura -- a device that goes as least as far back as Anglo-Saxon poetry -- is a mini-pause, a half breath, a truncated intake, creating a dramatic effect similar to a drumbeat.

In short, both the poem's sound and sense have taken us to that place -- whether it be mountaintop, whaling ship, a classroom, the moors, wilderness, a pit -- where wounded and rebellious humans shake their fist at God, sometimes demanding an answer, sometimes "returning their ticket" (to find this reference, read The Brothers Karamazov in its entirety), and sometimes venting their Blakean righteous indignation.

If you're normal, you've probably had one of these tantrums and know that once you've let it all out or you've had your hard, loud cry, a calm descends upon you, that wonderful feeling of finally getting over a lingering illness. You've found and acknowledged your limits; your reach is even farther from your grasp much than you thought, and you murmur quietly to yourself in deep meditation, "I can't do shit about most of this stuff." 

You have, in short, achieved a healthy disillusionment.

The same is true for "Dear God's" composer Andy Partridge and/or narrator. After a few lines with all the metrical smoothness of a washboard dirt road ("The hurt I see helps compound / That Father, Son and Holy Ghost / Is just somebody's unholy hoax") a calm returns and he turns the song back over to the child out of whose mouth the coda, the outro, comes as he completes the sentence "If there's one thing I don't believe in," with "It's you, Dear God."

Coming from the child, this line sounds more like a finger pointing than a fist shaking. "Dear God" has indeed ended not with a bang but a whisper with a razor-like precision, a truth told the way only a child can tell it  -- you know, like when you introduce your 4-year old to Aunt Matilda and the brat says, "You're really fat, Aunt Matilda."

I'm not one to label "God" or to speak for "It," but it's easy for me to imagine a Creator who loves Partridge's spirit, who loves that he has paid enough attention to be indignant, who loves that Partridge is right to cry out against the complacent, either/or, smug, absolute, unyielding, inflexible "God" stories Partridge has been fed in his youth.

"God" might also give a divine nod to XTC's creativity and their ability to add beauty and emphasis to their message through shifts in tone, rhythm, rhyme, and instrumentation, to stir more strongly their audience's emotions by opening and closing "Dear God" with a child, bringing the piece full circle, forming an Ouroboros

Once the circle is closed -- or the serpent has begun to swallow its tail --I can hear Partridge singing in a course with Captain Ahab, Job, Vonnegut, Heller, Shelley, Samuel Butler, Arthur Hugh Clough and Thomas Hardy. They're all saying the same thing. 

"Something is wrong here, isn't it? It shouldn't be like this."

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