Skip to main content

Don't Mess Around With Jim


I've been thinking about the Jim Croce song, "Don't Mess Around With Jim." SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the song, and want to be surprised by the final verse thereof should you someday listen to it, don't read further.

It's a song about what is sometimes nowadays called "micro-history." Micro-history is a term for scholarly inquiries into a narrow slice of space and time, a specific and localized event, and usually not one that strikes a non-professional reader as the obvious concern of History with the capital "H."

So, for example, a careful study of a miller brought to trial by the Inquisition for heretical views in the 16th century became a micro-historical classic. This is in part because the narrow slice of time and space involved, but also because the miller at the heart of the story  was an ordinary fellow, not an aristocrat, diplomat, judge.

And that brings us back to Jim Croce. The song tells the tale of a conflict between Jim and Slim. It is set in the narrator's present time, and in the midtown neighborhood in Manhattan. Uptown got its hustlers, downtown got its bums ... 42d Street got Jim Walker, a pool shooting son of a gun.

With verbal economy, the lyrics establish a certain gray-lit world in midtown where Jim ruled as a not-so-benevolent micro-despot. "When the bad folks get together at night/ You know they all call big Jim boss."

Anyway, after establishing this, the lyrics tell the story of the overthrow of Jim's despotism by virtue of the arrival of a pool-shooting boy named Willie McCoy, known as Slim.

The story can be taken either of two ways. If you -- like me, like Carlyle, like James -- see history micro or macro, as a stage of unpredictable human initiative, you can see Slim's victory in that pool hall as an instance of the decisive consequences of an individual's idiosyncrasies for a changed world.
But if you -- like Spencer, like Pete Townshend -- think the flow of events is determined by iron laws, that individuals essentially execute something none of us can legislate -- then you will focus on the likelihood that Slim and Jim were essentially indistinguishable once the revolution was over., That "You don't mess around with Slim" sounds a lot like "You don't mess around with Jim," and it probably worked out much the same so long as impersonal 'conditions' in the poolhall and its neighborhood stayed the same.

Which view was Croce's? I leave to you.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…