A Letter Concerning The Tortoise And The Tourist
Dear Mister Brock,
I am writing to you today to let you know that while I am fan of your work overall and particularly the song “The Tortoise and The Tourist”, I am also moved to protest the following portion of that song:
”There was this tortoise, its shell was covered with jewels
And had been since time began
It knew the world through all its histories
And the universe and its mysteries
One day it came across a man
The two were talking
The tortoise offered to tell him
About the future and how the universe ran
Oh, the man killed the tortoise, took his shell
And with a song on his lips walked off again.”
Please pardon me though as I make the following huge assumption, I take it that “a man” is meant to represent that most maligned figure known as Western Man. I have stumbled across this metaphor or analogy that you suggest in your lyrics many times in my bumblings through historical study. Excuse the sentiment, but I feel I really must stick up for this “A Man”.
First though I would like to examine this tortoise a little closer. The tortoise is an ancient creature that might have walked the earth with dinosaurs. As a character, he can be used to denote the wisdom of time and I assume this is the case in your song. What confuses me about this tortoise is that it has somehow managed to accrue all the mysteries of the universe AND obtained such obscene material wealth as to carry it around on his back with never a care. These two characteristics are often exclusive of each other, as those who pursue wealth rarely have time for study and those who study rarely have much use for wealth. Something’s up with this tortoise Mr. Brock and I for one can’t fault “A Man” for being a little wary of the creature.
In your song, this well-described tortoise of time immemorial meets… just some dude. No real description is given of our protagonist, instead he’s just a man and we can assume from the title of the song that he’s some sort of tourist. This would lead my America-centric mind to think this man is perhaps an interloping colonist from Europe in American lands (or his descendant perhaps) but that’s not much as far as a description of A Man goes. Why such paucity of detail Mr. Brock? Is it because your audience is supposedly already familiar with him? I certainly hope not as this would render your A Man “a trope” and not a real character.
Your tortoise is aware of all of the world’s histories and mysteries but I think you might have missed the fact that A Man, if he is indeed Western Man, was also aware of the universe and its mystery histories. He knew the world from Greece, to Rome, to Persia, to Berlin, to Moscow and beyond. He knew of Buddhism, Hindi, Muslims, Catholic, Jew, polytheistic Romans, Greeks and Gauls and was probably a forever dour Protestant himself. All of these people told this man they knew the world through all of its histories and mysteries too. The question for almost 1,000 years had been who to believe, not what to believe, because the man had heard it all too.
Then this jewel encrusted creature starts making wild offers of all knowledge for apparently nothing in return? Who's NOT suspicious of that? This man’s history, whoever he may be, is full of such free offers that turned into offers of destruction, carnage and pillage. This is my main defense of A Man. Here’s this big jewel encrusted turtle talking ever more nonsense about the universe and its mysteries while at the same time flaunting its inordinate physical wealth. This turtle, like all animals, is not a slave to other turtles, but A Man is most definitely a slave to other men. If this man lives anywhere in recorded history then he’s probably got some form of mortgage to pay and taxes to meet at the very least. My point here is that money has no use to an animal other than simple ornamentation and frankly how can you really ornament the work of God (or nature, depending on where your philosophies go)? Money, however, feeds babies, buys houses, keeps debtor prisons at bay and keeps you out of the army. What else was A Man supposed to do Mr. Brock?
It seems a little trite, and perhaps a bit conceited, that artists are constantly telling people that they should be satisfied with a knowledge of the world that is specious at best, while forever tempting them with jewel encrusted shells. It’s as if there’s a sentiment in the world that nature is just plain better than us in every regard, smarter and richer. This is probably true but the subtext is that nature is trying to give us these things and this subtext is just plain wrong and frankly a bit silly. Perhaps like me, Mr. Brock you fancy yourself something of a natural mystic, or in other words that one can find truth in nature. Indeed one can find truth in nature but it is a truth revealed, not a truth told. It certainly is not a truth told by a jewel encrusted tortoise with nothing better to do than flaunt its riches and knowledge to any old poor, bedraggled, probably ill and most certainly malnourished man.
To be blunt, Mr. Brock, the tortoise had it coming. Not because he paraded his wealth in such a foolish fashion but because he falsely claims a knowledge he not only doesn’t really have but also claims an exclusivity or monopoly on that knowledge that most certainly was not his to claim.
Still, it’s a bleeping great song and the verse after this one is inspired genius. I only write this to be a part of it in some small, misappropriated way. So in the end I hope this missive finds you well, happy and forgiving of its content.