'I Am a Rock / I Am an Island' - Capturing the Threads of Alienation and Communication Gap in the Songs of Simon and Garfunkel

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  • Topic: Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Simon & Garfunkel
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  • Published : March 30, 2009
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‘I am a rock
I am an island’

-A Study of the Recurring Themes of Alienation and Communication Gap in the Songs of Simon and Garfunkel (THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE STATESMAN FESTIVAL MAGAZINE 2006)

“You’re a stranger now unto me / Lost in The Dangling Conversation /And the superficial sighs, / The borders of our lives.”

Somehow, these lines seem to the best representative of what this paper will try to capture-the thread of alienation in the works of Simon and Garfunkel. One wonders if it all starts with Paul Simon’s Jewish origins. Belonging to an ethnic minority, a community covertly and at times even overtly undesired in the Christian worlds of America and England, between which he shuffled, it can be well deduced that it was this feeling of not belonging that creeps into his songs. As for Arthur (also a Jew), long before S&G, when they performed as Tom and Jerry he had a single called ‘Dream Alone’ with just two lines in the whole song, the poignant refrain:

“Dream alone… / Cry, o cry, cry alone”

However, an interpretation of art is not confined to the artist’s personal history only. Indeed, two very important words in the above-mentioned verse are ‘superficial’ and ‘borders’ and it is this superficiality that is time and again reflected in the songs, transcending from a personal level to the social and then to the spiritual, the levels often merging.

The Personal Level
To begin with, there are some intensely personal songs, about tangible relations gone sour or if not sour then definitely at the verge of a collapse. The Dangling Conversation itself paints a tragic picture of two lovers at a point of inertia, where they sit beside each other, unable to make intelligible conversation, like

“(It’s) a still life water color / Of a now late afternoon…”

This image of the late afternoon further reinforces the sense of a dying mental connection between the protagonists. Simon goes on to mention two poets- Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Indeed, it seems the song is influenced greatly by the Frostian theme of isolation and chasms between human beings evident in such poems as Home Burial. Two striking lines are where Paul carries the poetic idiom to a disturbing level:

“Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm, / Couplets out of rhyme, / In syncopated time”

So there are verses and there are couplets, but rhythm and rhyme is sadly missing. Similarly, there are words but no substantial speech to satisfy an emotional need. Their words are materialistic, essential but not powerful to bridge the gap, as if time itself is ‘syncopated’ or condensed to a bare minimum:

“Yes, we speak of things that matter, / In words that must be said…”

Of course ‘syncopated’ may actually be read as a critique of the growing tension in a rapid, busy world where people (and even lovers) do not possess enough time for each other. Towards the end, the lines

“And I only kiss your shadow, / I cannot feel your hand…”

seem to echo an earlier line from Bleeker Street:

“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand…”

and adds a sense of horror of an ultimate destiny shrouded in despair, where human beings lose even their form and hover like silent ghosts. Interestingly, the song ‘Overs’ from their concept album Bookends is strikingly similar, where again the speaker seems to be ruminating on his mental estrangement from a lover:

“We sleep separately. / And drop a smile passing in the hall…”

It is noticeable how the ‘touch’ element is reinforced by ‘sleep’ where Simon mourns the lack of a genuine human contact, a comforting bodily union between couples. Contrarily, is he trying to comment on the ephemeral and fragile nature of physical attraction that collapses with the mental breach and can be done without so easily? One also notes how the ‘syncopated time’ metaphor recurs in:

“But there’s no laugh left / ‘Cause we laughed them all / And we laughed them all / In a very short time.”

The...
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