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Stuff of Dreams

It’s hard to believe that Judy Garland’s poignant rendition of “Over the Rainbow” nearly wound up on the cutting-room floor prior to the release of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The studio brass fretted that the song, which comes near the beginning of the film, was too slow and boring. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer reluctantly agreed to restore it only after the film’s producer threatened to quit. “Over the Rainbow” went on to become an American standard and was voted the greatest song of the 20th century in a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Lyricist Yip Harburg said “Over the Rainbow” is a song about yearning. Freudians would say the song and film are a classic exercise in wish fulfillment, the process by which desires manifest themselves in dreams.* According to musicologist Walter Frisch, who wrote a book on the subject, the song’s universal appeal is attributable to the fact that so many different groups can read their own aspirations into it. Some critics find a political subtext, noting that Harburg, who wrote the Depression-era standard, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his socialist views. Harburg and co-writer Harold Arlen were both sons of Jewish immigrants, leading some to conclude that the song expresses a tribal yearning for a Jewish homeland. A rabbi has even detected a grim foreshadowing of the Holocaust in the line: “Away above the chimney tops/That’s where you’ll find me,” as if it somehow anticipated the crematoria at Auschwitz. Homosexuals, themselves victims of the Holocaust, have long identified with Dorothy’s estrangement from the community she grew up in and her longing for “somewhere over the rainbow.” Judy Garland herself became a gay icon during her short and unhappy life.

Curiously, there has been relatively little discussion of the religious element in the song’s otherworldly longing, made explicit in the introductory verse (which was not included in the film):

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane…

What exactly is this place where the dreams you dare to dream really do come true and where troubles melt like lemon drops? And what lies at the end of the Yellow Brick Road? Is not Oz just an emerald-green refashioning of the Celestial City in Pilgrim’s Progress? And just who is the Great and Terrible Oz, who supposedly has the power to give a brain to the brainless, a heart to the heartless and courage to the cowardly?

Never mind that the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a canny old humbug who is nothing more than a wizard of special effects. Intentionally or not, he sets Dorothy on path that leads to her true destination, which is right back where she started. As T.S. Eliot noted in his Four Quartets, all spiritual journeys are essentially circular:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started·
And know the place for the first time.

In Dorothy’s case, the end of all her exploring is the realization that, as she puts it in the film, “If I go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t go looking any further than my own back yard, because if it’s not there I never really lost it in the first place.”

What appears at first to be a sappy affirmation (“There’s no place like home.”) is, in fact, a profound spiritual insight for anyone seeking transcendence. What exactly do we hope to transcend, and why do we think it can only be found elsewhere? L. Frank Baum’s son sums up the lesson of his father’s original story this way: “What we strive for has been ours all along.” Every step Dorothy takes among the Yellow Brick Road brings her simultaneously farther from her ultimate destination and yet closer to the end of all her exploring. It is a wake-up call in the most literal sense, since Dorothy wakes up at the end of the film to find herself lying in her own bed. Critic Jerry Griswold may have said it best: "We wake up, as if from a momentary daydream, and find ourselves right where we wanted to be and where, in fact, we have always been. We are already in heaven.”

*In the film, unlike L. Frank Baum’s book, Oz is not a real place but exists only in Dorothy’s dream.

Jerry Griswold, "There's No Place But Home: The Wizard of Oz," Antioch Review (Autumn 1987)

Todd S. Gilman, "Aunt Em: Hate You! Hate Kansas! Taking the Dog. Dorothy": Conscious and Unconscious Desire in Children s Literature Association Quarterly, 1995.

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