baa

Tonight I sang in the fourth of five performances of Händel’s Messiah with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It’s a great one this year – the soloists include Michael Schade, Russell Braun, and Daniel Taylor.

One of the choral parts of the Messiah is “All we like sheep.” It’s not saying that we all like sheep; rather, it’s the beginning of a sentence, from Isaiah 53:6 – “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” It has some runs of sixteenth notes that seem as though they are meant to be a a little like the bleating of lambs, presumably wayward ones that have all gone their own way.

Every one to his own way. That does sound a bit individualistic, doesn’t it? When I think of sheep, I am reminded of this joke: An old farmer is being assessed by a psychologist. The psychologist says, “OK, say you have fifty sheep in a pen, and one gets out. How many are left in the pen?” The farmer says, “None.” The psychologist says, “Um. Let me make sure I’ve said that right: If a pen contains fifty sheep, and one escapes, what is the number of sheep you will find in the pen after that one escapes?” The farmer again says, “None.” The psychologist furrows his brows for a moment and then says, “I guess what I’m really trying to get at is, what’s one less than fifty?” And the farmer says, “Look, young feller, I know my math, but you don’t know sheep. If one of those dumb things goes, they all go.”

Hardly every one to his own way, is it? Funny, though. We think of sheep as being herd-behaviour animals, but we also have ideas of lost sheep. On the one hand we scorn them for being such followers, and on the other hand we scorn the ones that don’t follow – evidently because we assume they must have simply failed to follow. Somehow they are brainless because they follow but wayward if they turn every one to its own way.

They do follow, of course. Pick the ram (a.k.a. wether) that is most likely to lead the bunch and put a bell on it and you have the bellwether, a leading indicator of mass movements. We somehow like bellwethers – they tell us which way to go. And what are the examples for which way not to go? How about the black sheep? The black sheep of the family – the one who stands out, does not conform. It’s as though we want conformity without admitting that we want conformity. Bah.

Or rather baa. Which is what sheep say. “Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?” We know that sheep say “baa” like we know that cats say “meow” and dogs say “woof” or “arf.” We use this word with a double a – uncommon in English. It looks like an acronym, almost. Perhaps as in BAA, the Boston Athletic Association, host of the annual Boston Marathon (marathon running is an individual sport, not a team sport, but a large marathon is a remarkable vision of human herd behaviour). Or maybe BAA, the British Airports Authority, which oversees such hubs as Heathrow, where people are herded by the zillion every year through invasive checkpoints and into metal tubes that are blasted at high speed through the air.

But even if we “know” that sheep say that, what is the sound they really make? Cats don’t really say “meow,” after all. And if you get a person to imitate a sheep, they will not just make a “baa” sound. And different languages represent the sound differently: some have a /b/ at the start, some a /m/; some have an /a/ sound, some an /æ/, some an /e/. So what do sheep sound like really?

As it happens, at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto this past fall, I used my iPhone to record some sheep noises as we (and assorted strangers) wandered around through the sheep area. Have a listen:

You hear it? All those sounds that sound like people imitating sheep? Those are the sheep. (And then there’s the death metal sheep, which you hear clearly at the end.) When you get a person who doesn’t spend much time with sheep to imitate a sheep, they produce a sound that’s much more like what we expect from a sheep. Sheep themselves sound like people doing bad imitations of sheep.

Sheep make me think, thus, of Jean Baa-drillard – sorry (or not), Baudrillard – a French philosopher who wrote about the hyperreal. In the world, as Baudrillard saw it, we evaluate the reality of something on its reproducibility and its matchability to an idea of what reality should be. The hyperreal, which is the world of Disneyland and Las Vegas but also increasingly of our daily lives, is the real that is more real than real, the perfect simulation that is perfect because it perfectly matches other simulations; it is “the always already reproduced.” But which is more real or more hyperreal, the imitation that is taken as more real than the real thing, or the real thing that seems like a bad imitation? Is the abstracted ideal the real basis for the insufficiently real real?

And what are we herding after? We can be such a culture of people who believe ourselves to be following our own ways – but not in error, waywardly, but finding our own individual truth – but are in fact following prepackaged formulas and constructing identities that are just a group-think emulation of an ideal of individualism. We want to turn every one to our own ways, but in so doing we herd. We criticize black sheep but want, in our ways, to be black sheep, but the problem is that real black sheep aren’t a good enough black, so we’re all white sheep getting dye jobs to look blacker than the black ones. (And then there’s whole problem with the valuation of white versus black.)

And of course this time of the year is a classic time for herd behaviour. Go to a shopping mall. Everyone is there looking for that perfect gift for that individual someone (or multiples thereof). And that individual perfect gift will be one of many identicals, a reproduction of a pattern: an article of clothing, an electronic device, a book, whatever – as unique as the person you’re buying it for. Funny how they can say that and be taken to mean one thing but really mean something quite the opposite.

Well. We know what comes after “baa”: “humbug.” It’s easy to be cynical, just like all the other cynics. Yes, yes, we all do turn our own ways and do things our own ways. But we might as well hear ourselves in that baa and not be so sheepish about it.

4 responses to “baa

  1. Since you’re talking about bellwethers, I think you might enjoy the novel “Bellwether” by Connie Willis. It’s a fun little romp about scientific research and how trends begin.

  2. In the Chinese zodiac ” Sheep people (those born every twelve years, the last 2003) are elegant, charming, artistic, gifted and fond of nature. People born under this sign are also the most creative.
    They are also very delicate, their good manners and charms always bring many admirers and friends.” (http://pages.infinit.net/garrick/chinese/sheep.html) However, in Western culture sheep are not associated with the individuality of a creative artist—just the opposite, in fact. The Chinese–at least those who follow the zodiac– live in a different “reality.”

  3. Speaking of the hyper-real: the abstracted, idealised, on-screen Charlie Chaplin proved to be more real than the real Charlie Chaplin back in 1915 when he lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest:
    http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/chaplin2.asp

    He managed that feat with the aid of absolutely no phonemes.

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