Readers of a certain age will recognize the title of this post as part of the chorus of one of Bob Dylan’s iconic songs of the ’60’s, “Ballad of a Thin Man.”
And something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones ?
What brought the song to mind was another simple phrase which seemed to sum up our own time in a similar pithy way. Strangely enough, it came from a piece on CNN.com called “Why the best thing you can do is fail,” by Eddie Obeng, founder of a virtual business school http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/30/opinion/obeng-business-disruption-ted/index.html. Here is the passage that caught my attention:
“What’s happened in business is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”
We can substitute many other words for “business” and find the phrase rings equally true. Try it. “What’s happened in [publishing, school safety, government, warfare, economics, international relations] is that the rules of the real 21st century aren’t clear to us, so instead we spend our time responding to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists.”
Both the Dylan lyrics and Obeng’s observation put into simple words what we’ve known for some time but could not express so clearly.
One of my favorite words, liminal, stands for times like these, times of uncertainty and change in the life of an individual or a culture. Webster’s Dictionary defines liminal as: “1 of or at the limen or threshold 2 at a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.”
I started a post in December concerning what fairytales have to say about living in liminal times. Fairytales always happen in times of transition or crisis times. Your father will die if you don’t find the water of life. Your stepmother wants to kill you, or you find your new husband is a serial killer. The king will cut off your head if you fail to capture the firebird.
Can this be relevant to the 21st century? I’m convinced that it can.
Right now I’m reveling in one of my Christmas presents, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, a fine new collection published to celebrate the bicentennial of Grimm’s fairytales.
Reading so many stories at the same time raises a number of questions. What does it take for a character to survive their otherworld challenges? Sometimes you have to obey a witch, and at other times you need to push her into the oven. Sometimes not knowing is an asset and sometimes a fatal flaw. You should listen to animals by the side of the road unless they are wolves and you’re wearing red.
I don’t expect to come up with definite answers, but I do expect to turn up some interesting questions. This is my immediate plan; after that, I’ll do as I’ve always done on this blog, make things up as I go along.
I very much hope you’ll stay tuned. And now, I’ll leave you with my wish for a joyous and prosperous 2013, and with a very old clip of Bob Dylan doing “Ballad of a Thin Man” in 1966 in Copenhagen…