This Song Will Change Your Life 

Epiphany and Modernity in Garden State

Jessica Denzer

Editorial Meditation

Bear with me Dear Reader:

It is no small secret that many modernist writers had complicated feelings about the modern world. Nietzsche’s precursor to “God is dead” is a passionate plea for the marriage of Apollo and Dionysus, which will force the mind and soul into a higher order of thinking unrestricted by the controlled pettiness of bourgeoises industrialism. Kafka would rather be a bug. And D.H. Lawrence, my favorite lit-bro, sees the modern world as a destructive and oppressive force set out to destroy men, masculinity, desire, sex, thought, mothers, fathers, earth, sky, dirt, water. Everything. Like many writers who emerge from the fin de siècle and straddle the before and after of the Great War, Lawrence sees industry as the effeminizing menace that denies true masculine connection with the natural world, and so inhibits one from existing in his natural state. This inhibition renders men impotent, both figuratively, and often quite literally, intellectually, and physically. 

Women too suffer from being denied, or perhaps seduced away from their natural feminine states through the false and sinister promises of modernity. Given no masculine counterpart, Connie of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is left bored and full of longing in her loveless marriage to Sir Clifford Chatterley, and her femininity becomes stifled and unfulfilled, wasted in all its glorious potential. Perhaps Connie’s most interesting counterparts would be the women of Sons and Lovers, particularly Gertrude Morel, whose coal mining husband is also unfulfilling due to his drunkenness, an element of Lawrence’s critique on the rise of industrial capitalism and the working class. Gertrude, unlike Connie, however, does not project her feminine desires onto a lover, a move that would perhaps allow her the basic sensual qualities required to nurture masculine potential, à la Clara Dawes (1), but instead channels them into her sons, creating a perverse dynamic of power over her children, particularly young Paul. In many ways, Paul and Sir Clifford are confronted with the same dilemma. For Paul, the dilemma is manifested in his controlling and passionate mother, for Clifford Chatterley it is the war, the Great Mother (2), who succeeds in crippling him. Both characters end up in the bosom of mothers, or mother-like characters, and neither end up happy or fulfilled. The most successful characters in Lawrence’s novels are those who find transcendence from and rejection of the modern menace. Connie and Mellors, the two lovers of Lady Chatterley, embrace the wildness of their natural states by disregarding social and marriage norms and embracing, though staunchly hetero, sexual taboos. 

A little bit Dionysus, a little bit Apollo, Mellors, the gamekeeper, emerges from the wilderness as if in a fairytale and can point out Connie’s butthole from all the other holes in her body, to the delight of Lady Chatterley, and the misery of her husband. Sir Clifford Chatterley, who was paralyzed in the war from the waist down, and who cannot have sex with his wife, regards Mellors with disdain, claiming his intellectual superiority over the gamekeeper in an obvious attempt to hide his own masculine insecurities. It’s clearly all downhill for poor Clifford. Obviously his wife is headed into the arms of the stoic nature god of the woods. Connie and Mellors’ bodies naked, named, and entwined symbolize a sexual-sensual freedom granted by their wiliness to transgress the imprisonment of social modernity so that they can embrace their true masculine and feminine natures. 

Clifford’s body, too, is a symbol but one of brokenness, a state originally forced onto him by the mechanized violence of WWI. But Clifford’s true weakness is not simply his crippled condition, but his consenting mind, which has allowed for the modern post-war world to conquer his body. This is perhaps most realized during a climactic scene in Chapter 19, when, after learning of Connie’s decision to leave, Clifford exhibits what Mrs Bolton(3) labels “male-hysteria” and puts “his arms round her and clung to her like a child, wetting the bib of her starched white apron, and the bosom of her pale-blue cotton dress, with his tears. He had let himself go altogether, at last.”

What I find most interesting here, and perhaps most disturbing, is the actualized fantasy that both Paul Morel and Clifford have, in their solitary and hysteric finality, buried in the bosoms of their mothers. For Mrs Bolton, this fantasy has more perverse possibilities. Her relationship with Clifford is a psycho-sexual degeneration that forms the child-mother-lover scenario that Lawrence places at the center of perverse modernity: 

Yes! Do kiss me! Do kiss me!’ And when she sponged his great blond body, he would say the same! ‘Do kiss me!’ and she would lightly kiss his body, anywhere […] And then he would put his hand into her bosom and feel her breasts, and kiss them in exultation, the exultation of perversity, of being a child when he was a man. Mrs. Bolton was both thrilled and ashamed, she both loved and hated it. Yet she never rebuffed nor rebuked him. And they drew into a closer physical intimacy, an intimacy of perversity, when he was a child stricken with an apparent candour and an apparent wonderment, that looked almost like a religious exaltation: the perverse and literal rendering of: ‘except ye become again as a little child’. While she was the Magna Mater, full of power and potency, having the great blond child-man under her will and her stroke entirely.

And if you weren’t sure if it was meant to be perverse; if for whatever reason that description doesn’t make you feel queasy, then not to worry, the word perverse in all iterations appears at least five times within a matter of three paragraphs, clarifying any confusion. Their intimacy, in contrast to Mellors and Connie, is perverse. Perhaps for Lawrence, the modern world in all its monstrous possibility could not be more horrifically rendered then in the bosom of a flushed orgasmic mommy, who is both ashamed and thrilled over the psycho-sexual control of her milking man-child. Stay away from moms, or women who act like moms, he might have yelled from the rafters. They are not to be trusted!

I would like to pivot for a moment and ask a very important question: What if I were to apply Clifford’s trajectory, or Paul’s trajectory—or many men of literature from the fin de siècle all the way to post-war modernism (with a special emphasis on sexy D.H. Lawrence and more accurately on Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus(4))—to Zach Braff’s 2004 indie darling Garden State? I could argue that Andrew, played by Braff, functions from a similar place of stunted impotence in a world that has denied him his natural masculine state. Natalie Portman’s Sam, I suppose, could move between Miriam(5) and Clara of Sons and Lovers, and end somewhere by the fiery hearth, as she does with Andrew after the pool party, arse up like Connie parsing out holes. 

But why, you ask? Why would I compare D.H. Lawrence’s most famous works, or Nietzsche or Joyce for that matter (I swear I will return to Portrait before this essay is out) to the great Braffian narrative of the early 21st century? Why would I do this? Because, dear reader, this is actually an essay about Garden State. Bear with me, this essay will change your life, I swear. 

I suppose, before going further, I should give a summary of Garden State, for those here who haven’t seen this important attempt in capitalism’s journey to pass itself off as self-reflective art. I say again, beware of the mothers! Essentially, and this is bare bones, Andrew is an over-medicated actor living in LA. He is presented to us as passive and disconnected, “dead inside” one might say. There is no Apollo or Dionysus in this one, just a bunch of lithium, mood-stabilizers, and anti-depressants. Like Paul Morel, Andrew has also been controlled by his mother, and effectively rendered incapable of connection because of it. But while Gertrude might be described in our contemporary world as a helicopter mom, Andrew’s mother is mean and depressed, disconnected, and uncaring about her son. Andrew (spoiler alert!) in a fit of child-like frustration at the age of nine, pushes her and causes her to become paralyzed, much like Clifford. It’s worthy to contrast the broken body here to the broken body in Lady Chatterley. Garden State’s broken body is the desexualized mother, instead of the emasculated husband. Unlike Clifford, whose body is broken by the Great War, Andrew’s mother’s body is arguably placed within the battlefield of motherhood. Like Clifford, who was seemingly unequipped for war, Andrew’s mother is described by Andrew as unequipped for motherhood; her depressive and miserable state possibly caused by her maternal status is the catalyst for young Andrew’s act against her. “I pushed her,” Andrew reveals to his friends after the famous pool party scene where the viewer is given a glimpse of Andrew and Sam’s potential nakedness and so is appropriately followed by a moment of confessional vulnerability: 

[Her] whole life she was depressed for no reason. Look at this picture. Look at her face..[he pulls the picture from his wallet] That’s how, she was every single day of her life. And one day… I was nine years old and I just really hated her for that, and I pushed her.

By denying reason for his mother’s depression (“depressed for no reason”) Andrew denies reason for his own depression, reminding us of Andrew’s predicament as over-medicated misunderstood victim of modernity whose life have been informed by his ill-equipped solider-mother. In this sense, Andrew-the-pusher becomes the weapon, inflicting the injury onto the mother in the same way the weapons of the Great War inflict injury onto Clifford, who equally was unprepared and whose body becomes a physical manifestation of his emotional-intellectual masculine failures. Unlike Clifford, however, who can only regress into a perverse boy-man, Andrew’s mother becomes the “Magna Mater” post-accident; she villainizes her son, identifies him as dangerous, and convinces his psychiatrist father to over-medicate the child and send him away. In her inability to attain maternal correctness, now manifested in her paralysis, Andrew’s mother projects weakness onto the father (scientist, doctor, and symbol of modernity) who becomes the Clifford of this movie, emasculated and yoked by his wheel-chaired wife. In this mode of maternal retribution, Andrew is blamed entirely and rendered just as paralyzed as her. 

Okay, so perhaps this isn’t the bare bones. My point is that the mother in Garden State is alive and well. Even though she is dead at the beginning of the film, her life is the necessary foundation of Andrew’s metaphorical paralysis. Her oppression of Andrew functions as a kind of metaphor for modernity, the image fitted nicely into the body of a mean, immobile, and maternally inept woman.  And it is the event of her death that forces our hero to travel back home and meet Natalie’s Sam, our Virgil-meets-Connie-meets-Miriam who accompanies Andrew on a series of vignettes that ultimately force him to change his life, reconcile with his father, forgive his mother, and fall in love.

But what does it mean for something to change your life? Ah another question. But this is a serious one. One I have been thinking about since my recent rewatch of Natalie Portman’s quirky Sam placing headphones onto Zach Braff’s sad Andrew character. “You gotta listen,” she insists, reaching/over-reaching, to place the headphones on her newly found stranger-friend. “This song will change your life, I swear.” She tells him this in all the earnest sincerity required of the quirky brown-haired girl who will actually be the thing to change his life. And the song in question? The Shins “New Slang.” 

In preparation for writing this essay, I performed a tiny experiment. I asked ChatGPT to describe this specific scene from Garden State. I was curious to see what the annals of data, criticism, plot summaries, Wikipedia pages, and so on had been fed into this new calculator of words, and what new insights might be delivered to me by this neat little chatbot. Here is our exchange: 

Me: Describe the scene in Garden State where Andrew meets Sam and then she has him listen to The Shins song “New Slang”

Chat GPT: In the movie Garden State, the scene where Andrew meets Sam and she introduces him to The Shins song “New Slang” takes place in a doctor’s office waiting room. Andrew, played by Zach Braff, is sitting in the waiting room looking bored and detached from his surroundings, while Sam, played by Natalie Portman, is hopping around, wearing headphones and listening to music.

Sam notices Andrew and strikes up a conversation with him, asking why he looks so sad. She then proceeds to tell him about her unique way of coping with difficult emotions, which involves screaming into a large abyss-like pit in a nearby quarry. Andrew is intrigued by her quirkiness and they start to bond over their shared feelings of disconnection from the world around them.

Sam then hands Andrew one of her headphones and plays “New Slang” by The Shins for him. As the music starts to play, the camera focuses on Andrew’s face, which is illuminated by the beautiful melody and lyrics of the song. The scene captures the power of music to connect people and evoke strong emotions.

Overall, the scene is a pivotal moment in the movie, as it marks the beginning of a transformative journey for Andrew, where he begins to rediscover his connection to the world and his own sense of purpose.

So, there are many problems with this summary(6). For example, the scene where Sam, “proceeds to tell him about her unique way of coping with difficult emotions” does not involve, “screaming into a large abyss-like pit in a nearby quarry.” Though related in both theme, sentiment, and action, the scene where Sam tells him of her “unique way of coping” happens directly after the doctor’s office scene, while “screaming into a large abyss-like pit” is an action Sam, Andrew, and Andrew’s friend Mark (played by Peter Sarsgaard) do together much later in the linear trajectory of this complex plot, which moves like most traditional narratives point-by-point, scene by scene, from beginning and end; not like the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. ChatGPT. 

Furthermore, Sam does not “then” hand “Andrew one of her headphones and play “New Slang” by The Shins for him.” The handing of the headphones happens way before the other scenes referred to by the chatbot, and there are not two headphones to “hand one” to, it is simply her big heavy 2004 cool-girl-audiophile headphones, complete with flower stickers on each end, faded just enough to be slightly punk rock. And she doesn’t hand, at first, she invades, attempting to conquer his passive body, much like how Clifford’s body is conquered by war, industry, business, and finally by Mrs Bolton. But Natalie-Sam (because let’s be honest, it’s never Sam without Natalie) is no Mrs Bolton. She has the sense enough to stop, and with the intellect of Miriam, and not quite the sensuality of Clara, she pauses, makes a witty joke, says “conundrum!” a little loudly, and asks if “you [Braff-Andrew] could listen”. 

What I like about this ChatGPT response is the phrasing used to describe Sam. While the scene summary might be off(7), the word choices are telling. Sam is said to be “hopping around” and “Andrew is intrigued by her quirkiness.” In the scene, Sam moves from the chair across from Andrew to the chair next to him, and while she does sit in the chair in an unconventional and very stereotypically “quirky-girl” way, I’m not sure that would constitute “hopping around.” But it doesn’t matter what I think, what matters is that the world perceives, and so ChatGPT perceives, Sam as a “hopping around” girl, and in many ways she is. She throws her body around and makes weird noises to cope with the feeling that she is “completely unoriginal” (the ChatGPT describes this as “dealing with difficult emotions”; she speaks fast, says nonsense, and claims to be a compulsive liar. So, while we don’t see Sam hopping around à la Peter Rabbit, metaphorically I suppose she is. This is the whole energy behind the “manic pixie dream girl” theory, anyway. Or at least that’s what I see when I hear the label used: a buzz buzz buzzy girl with wings like a little hummingbird, hopping around from one idea to the next, sucking the nectar from brief moments of life and every once in a while, landing on a true insight, an epiphany, something to change your life. And that is what the ChatGPT tells us happens! This is a “pivotal moment” our machine friend says, “as it marks the beginning of a transformative journey for Andrew, where he begins to rediscover his connection to the world and his own sense of purpose.”

But what does it mean for something to change your life? 

Let’s look at the lyrics to The Shins’ “New Slang”:

Gold teeth and a curse for this town

Were all in my mouth

Only I don’t know how they got out, dear

Turn me back into the pet

I was when we met

I was happier then with no mindset

And if you took to me like a

Gull takes to the wind

Well, I’d’ve jumped from my trees

And I’d’ve danced like the king of the eyesores

And the rest of our lives would’ve fared well

New slang when you notice the stripes

The dirt in your fries

Hope it’s right when you die, old and bony

Dawn breaks like a bull through the hall

Never should have called

But my head’s to the wall and I’m lonely

And if you took to me like a

Gull takes to the wind

Well, I’d’ve jumped from my trees

And I’d’ve danced like the king of the eyesores

And the rest of our lives would’ve fared well

Godspeed, all the bakers at dawn

May they all cut their thumbs

And bleed into their buns ’til they melt away

I’m looking in on the good life

I might be doomed never to find

Without a trust, a flaming field

Am I too dumb to refine?

And if you took to me like

Well, I’d’ve danced like the queen of the eyesores

And the rest of our lives would’ve fared well

Besides the fact that the majority of this song is just nice sounding mumbo-jumbo, I also am not sure I understand how it is meant to change Andrew’s life, and I don’t really know who to ask, The Shins, the sound editors, director of music, the great Braffian himself? Perhaps the first question I should be asking is what about Andrew’s life needs changing? Here we have a young man, returned from home after the death of his abusive and paralyzed mother. She drowns in the tub, a scene I cannot help but connect to the bathing scenes of Clifford and Mrs Bolton, “his great blond body” being sponged by the Magna Mater. But there is no Magna Mater for Andrew’s mother, because she is the Magna Mater, or a 21st century version of one, who cannot be saved by her ineffective husband, or the son she has arguably revenged-paralyzed through medication and ostracization. Andrew is over-medicated and disillusioned with the world. Everything about him screams modern burn-out and depression under the crushing realization of the facile and uncaring world of consumption and capitalism.

The very first scene in the movie is of Andrew sitting on a plane during a near crash. The scene is chaos, people screaming and crying while Andrew sits still and unaffected by the terror around him. A Hindu song, the Vakratunda Mahakaya, a prayer to Sri Ganesha, the Lord of obstacles, good luck, and the arts, plays over the scene—one that is perhaps a dream, I’m not a hundred percent sure of this transition. Then we’re in his empty and completely white bedroom (psychopathic if you ask me but you’re not, so…), ignoring a phone call from his father, who tells him that his mother is dead over the answering machine while Clifford-like-sobbing. “If you’re not going to return my calls,” he cries, “…look I don’t know how to do this…cause you’re going to need to come home now…Last night…your mother died…last night she drowned in the bath” and then beeeeeeeep, the answering machine cuts and Coldplay slips in. “We live in a beautiful world, yeah we doo, yeah we doo” Chris Martin croons over images of Andrew’s medication, traffic jams, and then a scene at the themed restaurant where he serves vapid people (mostly women) who order kettle cosmos and kettle red bulls and lots and lots of bread, “something to chew on, fuck, bamboo or whatever.”  

I’m not digressing here, I’m simply trying to figure out why a song that has the lines “Turn me back into the pet/ I was when we met/ I was happier then with no mindset” (or the lines “Godspeed, all the bakers at dawn/ May they all cut their thumbs/ And bleed into their buns/’til they melt away” for that matter) would be the song this particular lithium filled disconnected depressive would need to change his life. I’m also not sure why or if it changed Sam’s life. Or anyone’s life. It is not art, whatever the movie might want us to believe, that changes any of these characters lives. This is not a Joycean portrait, the journey of a young artist towards self-actualization. Nor is it Paul Morel, or Connie, or even Clifford in his child-like absolution, that allows for transformative and transgressive epiphany towards the ecstasy of the self. 

In Stephen Hero, Joyce’s posthumously published early draft of Portrait, he describes an epiphany as a “sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself”, believing that these epiphanies must be recorded “with extreme care, seeing that they [epiphanies] themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” For Joyce, and for many modernist writers, the epiphany is a moment of clarity while viewing the small things of the world. Often those moments, as seen in work including Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are moments when the natural world—Clarissa’s flowers, the falling of snow in The Dead, Paul’s penetrating stick in Sons and Lovers, the mediation of prayer against wood and stone and beds and sweat and kisses witnessed by Stephen Dedalus, the Apollo-comme-Dionysus of Portrait—intersects with the coldness of our modern landscape. And it is those moments of clarity, when the eye blurs to the realization of the self, that characters such as Paul and Stephen, (and Connie with her sexual embrace of the feminine self) achieve self-actualization. The finding is not in the other, not in the romance, but in art. Even Connie first must go to Venice alone before choosing to return to England and Mellors. Stephen Dedalus declares he will “express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.” Joyce’s Stephen, like Paul Morel, struggles with the oppressiveness of modernity, and for both Lawrence and Joyce, there is a concern over the potential relationship the artist will have with industry and capitalism. For Lawrence, the struggle is gendered, and like his predecessors of the Victorian era, the anxiety over manliness-naturalness vs. machine-driven economies and bourgeoisie passivity are at the center of his characters’ tragedies. For Joyce, this oppression is of a more literal bondage, that of British colonialism and religious control, morphed into a kind of sexual and intellectual stifling of all Irish, and particularly the Irish artist, who must confront the self to rid the self of internalized bondage, “a fear of freedom, fear of the body, fear of the complexity of experience.”(8) Stephen’s desire is one of identity of the artist, found through the artist alone, created by the artist, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience” of Irishness and of artist. 

For our dear Andrew, the journey seems primed for the artist against modern capitalism and consumption (levels of which might be shocking and disheartening to the likes of Joyce and Lawrence). However, Andrew’s journey ends, as Shakespeare tells us “in lovers meeting.” This line is stated by the “wise clown” character in Twelfth Night. I find it particularly fitting here to insert a line that functions like prophetic wisdom in the play, (the play does end in lovers meeting), in these final moment of discussion on Garden State and self-actualization. Twelfth Night is a situational romantic comedy that relies entirely on costuming and mistaken identity. The plot hinges on the necessity of the costumes for survival while also the necessity of costume removal for love. While the characters eventually do reveal their true selves, and so fall in love, the potential for danger without the masks functions as the main source of comedy and disruption in the play, suggesting that love and survival are at odds unless true identity is secure. 

Throughout the play, Viola is forced to question herself, her desires, and her identity through the conundrum of her costume. Disguised as a man to secure safety in a strange land, she must fend off the advances of one noble lady while ignoring her growing desire for another noble man. The costume functions for Viola as the mask that allows for the epiphany. Her inability to reveal who she is forces an investigation of her true desires and so her true self. During a soliloquy in Act 2 scene 2, Viola tells the audience: 

Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness/ Wherein the pregnant enemy does much./How easy is it for the proper false/ In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!/Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,/ For such as we are made of, such we be […]/As I am man,/ My state is desperate for my master’s love./ As I am woman (now, alas the day!).

In this moment, Viola is met with the reality of her situation and the reality of who she is: a person of multiplicity and complex desire. The costume acts as a kind of barrier to material truth which allows for inner non-material truth to develop, much like the Greek mask. Viola sees herself as woman and as man(9), physically and/or emotional-intellectually, recognizing both the dangers and the necessity of this complexity. She states towards the end of the monologue, “It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie,” but untie it she must, and so she does. By the end, she has removed the costume of Cesario and married Duke Orsino, the man she loves as Viola woman-self and Cesario man-self. While safety in the play can be defined as more material security—Viola needs a man and money to protect her—secure sense of self is also necessary for Viola to remove her costume, and that security in identity is gained through an odyssey of self-interrogation towards self-creation, much like Stephen Dedalus.

In Garden State, however, true identity is forged through love and love functions as the force needed to remove the mask of modernity that ultimately harms the wearer. The mask does not function as a tool towards self-discovery, but rather the thing that hinders it. The identity, then, is not forged through the understanding of self in order to actualize the self, and love is not attained after the knowledge of the self, but is, in fact, separate from the individual self entirely. Identity in the film is the union of one quirky soul and another. 

Once Sam has removed Andrew’s costume, (again the pool party swimsuit-almost-naked scene functions as a literal and metaphorical disrobing), Andrew does attempt self-interrogation by going back to LA. In the second to last scene Andrew and Sam sit on the stairs of the airport. Andrew is about to return to LA after four days of a life changing voyage of Sam-self-discovery. Sam is crying on the steps and to console her, Andrew says the following:

Look at me. Sam, look at me. This is not over. I’m not putting a period at the end of this thing. I’m putting like… an ellipses on it. Because I’m worried that if I don’t go figure myself out, if I don’t go land on my feet and be okay on my own, I’m gonna fuck this up. And I don’t want to do that. This matters too much to me.

Through several dialogue exchanges between sobbing Sam and consoling Andrew, Andrew identifies what Twelfth Night, and arguably Joyce would claim is the second step towards true identity: figuring out your shit. The first step, of course is the epiphany, the moment clarity is revealed through nature’s collision with modernity–the pouring rainstorm in the “abyss-like pit”, the voices of Andrew, Sam, & Mark filling the void created by an abandoned mall construction project, the death of mother & wheelchair, the beautiful girl in the epilepsy helmet(10), medication abandoned in favor of love & acceptance. Such epiphanies propel Joycean characters onto the airplane, or train, or boat, or road and into the odyssey. They function as the window into the soul so that the “wise clown” in us all can be heard, whispering the necessity of self-interrogation, the release of society’s bondage, and the demasking towards identity. 

In the last scene in Garden State, however, Andrew fails to get on the plane. Finding Sam in a phonebooth balling in abandoned despair, he embraces her and tells her that leaving is “dumb. It’s an awful idea. And I’m not gonna do it. Because like you said, this is it. This is life. And I’m in love with you, Samantha.”(11)

No odyssey for this sucker. 

For Andrew, epiphanies, which fluctuate between Sam’s quirky smiles, gumby like movements, and bizarre nonsensical platitudes, either her own or The Shins’ (“I’m looking in on the good life/ I might be doomed never to find/ Without a trust, a flaming field/Am I too dumb to refine?”), never fully enter the smithy of the soul. Instead, epiphanies function as plot points for a rom-com narrative that confuses self-actualization of the hero’s journey with a meet-cute, and forges “self” into a vessel for capitalism dressed up in indie-princess dream girl Natalie Portman/Sam. What we have here, dear reader, is a nice exchange: mean desexualized Magna Mater for quirky, cute, hoppy, girlfriend who is wholly unrealized herself. Love is attained, journey ends, ticket sold, identities labeled neatly on screen. We do not have a declaration of art, or a journey towards self-creation, self-reclaiming, or self anything. We have a song that makes no sense, and a quick solution to Lawrence’s nightmares: just be okay with Clifford, or Paul, or Andrew. Let them burry their faces into the bosoms of their moms or their Claras or their Sams. The change is not in the trajectory of the journey—in the life—but in the lens from which it is viewed. Did this essay change your life? Surely not, but neither, I am assuming, did “New Slang.”


1 Clara, like Connie, can embrace her sexuality and sensuality, which for a while fulfills Paul, the primary character in Sons and Lovers. However, her association with the suffragette movement, as well as her over-all disgust for men due to her unhappy and cruel marriage, aligns her more with Gertrude, who prefers Clara to Paul’s first love, uptight, sexually repressed, and over intellectual Miriam. Paul believes that he can fix Clara by sexually and sensually fulfilling her (aligning with Victorian medical use of heterosexual stimulation to cure hysteria). In other words, Paul (though more sensitively than I might state here) believes she just needs a good fucking. Clara’s association with Gertrude through her political and social regard towards men renders her unable to ultimately fulfill Paul, however, and instead reinforces his inability to achieve self-actualization. 

2 Like all good fights, WWI is essentially a family affair. Throughout history, European powers have been controlled by a small group of aristocrats, often related, very often intra-married. Most of Queen Victoria’s nine sons and daughters were married to other European monarchs and family-heads-of-state, including her eldest daughter Princess Victoria, who was the mother of Wilhelm III of Germany, making Queen Victoria his grandmother and King George V his cousin. One could argue that when the great matriarch Queen Victoria died, familial tensions grew, causing a continental spat between cousins, which resulted in a global war, similar to how some of us experience family holidays. Furthermore, most European languages refer to a/the homeland in the feminine, very often the “Motherland.” German is a major exception. Mother England, however, has often been presented in literature through the metaphor of the feminine body, the great mother whose life must be saved at all costs. “Do it for England”, then, takes on a very specific meaning in relation to physical sacrifice, and the demand on the body becomes one between mothers and sons.

3 Mrs Bolton is Clifford’s loyal house-maid-turned-nurse, who is sever, strict, and extremely mother-like in her treatment of both Connie and Clifford. She is the embodiment of both Middle Class and motherly control that Lawrence is so disgusted by.

4 Joyce’s main character and artist in his semi-autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

5 Miriam is the first lover of Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers. She is overly intellectual, sexually repressed, and extremely uptight. One important epiphany Paul has with Miriam is during a scene in Chapter 9, titled “The Defeat of Miriam” where Miriam and Paul express their frustrations regarding each other and their relationship all while Paul attempts to stab the ground over and over with a stick, essentially penetrating the ground he cannot penetrate with Miriam.

6 Perhaps the most disturbing failure of this ChatGPT is the omittance of the humping seeing eye dog that assaults Andrew’s leg while the owner quite literally blindly looks the other way. Not only is this the first sex scene we see, one that wholly highlights Andrew’s passivity and impotence, but it also gives Sam her only Gertrude-esq moment when quite brazenly she tells him to kick the dog in the balls, claiming that she often kicks her own dogs in the balls for this exact reason. Not only does this raise red flags regarding animal abuse and flagrant disregard of Bob Barker’s pleas to “have your pets spayed and neutered”, but it also allows for the same kind of sexual aggression Gertrude feels towards her husband/sons to be present in Sam and enacted on animals, taking this psycho-sexual repression-aggression to another level. Gertrude smothers her sons, while Sam kicks dogs in the balls.

7 I love the uncanniness of ChatGPT: an almost human-like machine, giving me an almost human like response, describing an almost correct summary of a scene from a movie that is almost about self-actualization. Even in the incorrectness, there is an eerily similar quality to the ChatGPT response and my students, who often lack the understanding of order and organization and amalgamate the various points along a narrative trajectory to make a point that is almost possibly a thesis.

8 Dean, Seamus, Introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Penguin Classics-Penguin Books, 1992. Pp vii-vlii.

9 I just want to take a minute here to acknowledge the complexities of gender in Shakespeare. The concept of gender did not necessarily function in the same physical binary of “sex” and “biology” the way it’s presented in the contemporary era. Masculinity, defined by notions of activity and rationality would have been juxtaposed to femininity, defined in the opposite as passivity and emotion. Therefore, we might see gender in Twelfth Night as a metaphor for emotional and intellectual desires, as well as physical desires towards public activity. This is particularly interesting within the historical context of the play, having been first performed between 1601-1602. Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, so the play was performed during the final years of her very successful reign and the transition into King James VI & I, which is often presented as a transition from the feminine to the masculine, much like Viola’s costuming. We can also see gender as a fluid conversation for queerness in Shakespeare’s plays, as Shakespeare seems particularly interested in the fluidity of gender expression manifesting through public declaration and performance. Macduff, the famous executer of Macbeth, after discovering his wife and children have been slaughtered, declares that before he can avenge “as a man” he first must “feel it as a man” placing importance on the emotional pause that Lady Macbeth defines as feminine early in the play when she calls upon the spirits to “unsex me here.” Finally, this fluidity is interesting within the context of the performance, as all actors on stage would have been men, and so Viola, herself (as well as lady Macbeth) would have been a three-part costume moving from masculine actor to feminine Viola masked as masculine Cesario.

10 Sam’s epilepsy remains a mystery to me. The concept of epilepsy is not a mystery to me, nor is the idea of Sam being epileptic. However, the fact that it is briefly mentioned in a plot that does not explore her identity really at all other than a platform for Andrew’s self-discovery, and so does not explore her epilepsy outside of it keeping her from her frog-man ice-skating career, it just seems like a strange choice for just one of the many quirky details about this quirky hamster-loving girl.

11. I’m not sure if this is the first time we hear Sam be called “Samantha” and I’m not going to go back and count, but if it is, then it’s worth noting that Andrew’s moment of claiming identity against the grain of capitalism and modernity is also the exact moment that he changes an aspect of Sam’s identity by relabeling her a name we have not heard her use for herself. There is also the possibility that the only time we have heard her full name in use is by authority figures, such as her mother or the doctor/nurses, which would also suggest authority and control in relation to naming and identity. But I’ve already written too much and am not going to bore you with hypothetical theories on naming and control in Garden State.

Jessica Denzer received her B.A. in English Literature from Fordham University and her M.F.A. in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a researcher in residence at the New York Public Library and writes fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, and she supplies a range of editorial contributions to West Trade Review, L’Esprit Literary Review, and Four Way Review. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays.

One response to “This Song Will Change Your Life ”

  1. […] A little bit Dionysus, a little bit Apollo, Mellors, the gamekeeper, emerges from the wilderness as if in a fairytale and can point out Connie’s butthole from all the other holes in her body, to the delight of Lady Chatterley, and the misery of her husband. Sir Clifford Chatterley, who was paralyzed in the war from the waist down, and who cannot have sex with his wife, regards Mellors with disdain, claiming his intellectual superiority over the gamekeeper in an obvious attempt to hide his own masculine insecurities. It’s clearly all downhill for poor Clifford. Obviously his wife is headed into the arms of the stoic nature god of the woods. Connie and Mellors’ bodies naked, named, and entwined symbolized a sexual-sensual freedom granted by their wiliness to transgress the imprisonment of social modernity so that they can embrace their true masculine and feminine natures.Continue reading […]


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